Archive for August, 2006


Stephen Tall’s guest slot: another Lib Dem election?

Thursday, August 31st, 2006

Past precedent, future Presidents…

For those feeling starved of party election contests, the Lib Dems might just have a morsel to stave off the hunger pangs pending the Big One, Labour’s Brown v Someone battle.

Simon Hughes (pictured), the current party President, is nearing the end of his first two-year term of office, and is eligible for re-election for one further term. The question is: will he re-stand, and if he does will anyone challenge him?

When last the post was up for grabs, in 2004, Simon won an impressive mandate: 24,333 (71%) Lib Dem members chose him over fellow MP, Lembit Öpik, in an election which saw a pretty healthy 47% turn-out. But, prior to that, you have to go back a decade, to 1994, for the previous contested election.

Which may suggest the post of President is not exactly the most coveted of roles – so what is it the President is expected to do? Well, officially s/he “shall be the principal public representative of the party and shall chair the Federal Executive”. Or, as Simon has rather more snappily put it, the job is “to be the voice of party members within the party, and the voice of the party to the outside world”.

Two aspects may well arouse greater interest in a contested election this time. The first, and most obvious, is the opportunity it affords any MP thinking of a future leadership contest to raise their profile within the party. The happy precedent here would be Charles Kennedy, who topped the poll twice, in 1990 and 1992, enjoying embarrassingly Stalinist votes of 82% and 70% respectively.

However, the presidential path is not always paved with gold. Simon’s first year as President appeared not to stand him in good stead during his second unsuccessful run for the leadership, with the previously less well-known Chris Huhne instead emerging as the activists’ favourite. Nor did Lembit’s failed presidential campaign strengthen his base of support within the party.

That the Lib Dems’ leader and deputy leader are both men in their 60s will certainly increase the pressure on one of the party’s up-and-coming female MPs to throw their hat into the ring. Lynne Featherstone, Susan Kramer, Jo Swinson and Jenny Willott (for example) all have loyal followings, and each would be an asset at the party’s top table.

There is, though, a second possible aspect which may pique interest. There is no reason why the President must be a Parliamentarian – though the need to have time, relevant experience and a public profile will likely limit the pool of possible candidates who may wish to stand on an “activists’ ticket”. In any David versus Goliath battle, a fair few Lib Dem members will be hardwired to root for the underdog. And on a 40-50% turn-out anything might happen.

Nominations for the presidency open on 4th September, and close on the 27th September. If the Presidency is contested, the all-member ballot will take place between 11th October and 3rd November. There’s no betting market as yet, but it would provide gamblers with a diversion from the future of the Labour party.

Stephen Tall is a Lib Dem councillor in Oxford. He runs his own website,, and blogs at A Liberal Goes A Long Way.


The Nobel Peace Prize

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

Who will be the 2006 laureate – or laureates?

An interesting market which politicalbetting contributors were discussing yesterday for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, to be announced on 13 October. Like many of the bookies’ novelty markets, there’s room for oddsmakers to have some fun. One doubts much money is being taken on Hugo Chávez or Oprah Winfrey.

The favourite, at 5/1 with Paddy Power, is Martti Ahtisaari (pictured), the former Social Democrat President of Finland who has taken various international roles since leaving office. He served on the commission overseeing the decommissioning of IRA weapons in Northern Ireland, and most recently led the negotiations that delivered a treaty this month between the Indonesian government and the rebel movement on Aceh.

A strong CV for the prize? Probably, but the prize is not always easy to predict, and even if Ahtisaari wins he may not be alone. If the award committee is particularly concerned to recognise the Aceh treaty, a joint award for Ahtisaari and the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono may result. Susilo is himself 6/1 second favourite. Punters should take note that the bookies would settle a joint award using dead heat rules – in other words, your odds would be halved if the prize went jointly to two winners, and cut even more if it were shared more widely.

My thanks to the commenters who began this discussion yesterday, particularly SBS and John O.

Philip Grant
Guest editor

Mike Smithson returns on 10th September.


Elephants in the conference room

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

The market is writing off the old men of the Parti Socialiste

The British press has revived its irregular interest in French politics over the weekend, enjoying what can be painted as some bitchy speeches from the platform at the Socialist party’s “summer university” in La Rochelle. The ire of the party’s senior “elephants” is mostly aimed (or at least interpreted to be aimed) at Ségolène Royal (pictured). According to the polls, Royal is the runaway preference of the electorate for the party’s presidential nomination next year, but her lead hasn’t caused her rivals to give up hope. The field is still crowded with putative candidates, including Lionel Jospin, François Hollande (Royal’s partner), Jack Lang, Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Jospin, the 2002 nominee who was eliminated in the first round of the presidental election, gave a speech which, judging by the coverage in the Telegraph and Independent, brought forth Paltrowesque tears. His call for a campaign where “ideas have to be explained” probably overstates his own powers as a persuasive explainer, but is the kind of message which goes down well among the committed activists of a party wherever it lies on the ideological map.

Jospin – and the other elephants – may not come across as very compelling to the French electorate. But even if none of them can actually seize the nomination, they may still disrupt and embitter the party enough to knock Royal out of the race. And this is where the betting markets seem to have it wrong; Royal is just under 2/1 on Betfair to win the presidency, boulevards ahead of any other socialist. This looks unattractive when the nomination is still in question. By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy, a little ahead at 5/4 favourite, seems much more assured of being the centre-right’s candidate, with his one-time nearest rival, Dominique de Villepin, involved in a messy libel case over the “Clearstream affair”.

Real betting value now might come from identifying the potential dark horses on the socialist side.

Philip Grant
Guest editor

Mike Smithson returns on 10th September.


Labour’s NEC elections

Monday, August 28th, 2006

A guest contribution from Andrea

At the beginning of August the Labour NEC election results for the CLPs division were announced. Members can elect six members to the party ruling body and 16 candidates were contesting the election: the two main slates, “Grassroots Alliance” (the Left wing slate) and “Labour First” (the so called “loyalist” slate), were joined in the race by a handful of independent candidates.

The result showed 4 candidates (Black, Shawcroft, Willsman and Wolfgang) from Grassroots Alliance being elected and 2 from Labour First (Wheeler and Reeves).

In the 2004 election 3 successful candidates were from the Grassroots Alliance and 3 from the Milibank slate. So it’s an improvement for the left wing slate that for the first time since 1998 has 4 out of 6 members directly elected. (They had held 4 seats at times in the more recent past, but only after various members resigned their seats and so the next-ranking candidates got in their place).

The poll was topped (as it was in 2004) by Ann Black. Not a surprise, considering she’s extremely hardworking and the most “mainstream” among GA candidates allowing her to get votes outside the “left” of the party.

Grassroots’ Christine Shawcroft (a long standing NEC member and on the Labour Left Briefing editorial board) and Peter Willsman (a leading figure in the “Campaign for Labour Party Democracy” organization) came second and third. They increased their total vote even though turnout was down.

Richmond’s most famous heckler, Walter Wolfgang (pictured), came in 4th place. Labour First’s candidates Peter Wheeler (Salford CLP chairman and Amicus officer) and Ellie Reeves (former National Chair of Labour Students) got the last two places on the NEC.

The election can be seen as a win for the Left of the party. The Grassroots Alliance slate was probably better organized and Labour First suffered from not fielding this time two vote-winning candidates from previous contests (Ruth Turner and Shahid Malik). It must be said that also the Grassroots Alliance “lost” a high profile candidate (Mark Seddon) this time, but Walter Wolfgang proved a better replacement than some new candidates. like Philomena Muggins (yes, I know, she sounds like a Harry Potter character. But I swear she’s real!) on the Labour First slate.

Some commentators painted the result as a defeat for Blair and the leadership. If on one hand it’s true that they aren’t probably welcoming monthly meetings with Walter Wolfgang and Christine Shawcroft, and it’s hardly a good result for Labour First, on the other hand I think the NEC election shouldn’t be over-estimated, especially because of the turnout.

It reached a record low: just 20.3% party members voted this year. The total score got by Ann Black this year would have placed a candidate just in 11th place in 2002. The poor turnout certainly shows a lack of interest among the membership. Labour should hope that it’s just for internal party elections and factions and it’s not a general lack of enthusiasm toward the party. Added to a declining party membership, disaffected members can be fatal at the next GE when the party will need many motivated party members in the streets to fight the Tories, the Lib Dems, the Nats and all other parties.

A revealing comment was made by Christine Shawcroft in the run up of the 2005 GE: “We are concentrating resources on national call centres and mail shots because the Party has never been so short of active members, and CLPs are reporting that there are no troops on the ground for knocking on the doors or even delivering the leaflets”. Polls are already indicating that Labour voters are less willing to turnout in a GE, so the same trend should be avoided among members.

This lack of interest by the membership should be an alarm bell for the party, and certainly not overlooked and ignored, but addressed (maybe by the new leadership if the handover is next year) by trying to encourage members to engage more with party activities.

Some on the Left tried to point it out that the result shows that they’ve a base to work from for the future leadership and deputy leadership race. It must be remembered that turnout will be much higher in a leadership ballot, voting for a NEC seat is not like voting for a Prime Minister (because Labour will be electing a PM, not just a leader) and that fighting Brown, Reid or Johnson isn’t the same as competing against Lorna Fitzsimons.

Andrea is an Italian student and one of’s most prolific contributors.


Marvels of modern polling? Exit polls, part 1

Sunday, August 27th, 2006

Part 1 of a two-part guest series by Harry Hayfield. Part 2 can be found here.

Exit polls came to fame in 1952 when following a long study of the American electorate, NBC fed the information into a computer and after a few moments said “Eisenhower to win”. As the results came in, the computer was proven right and the sceptics wrong.

In our elections, exit polls have only really been around since 1970 when the BBC commissioned a poll of the electors of the “typical” seat of Gravesend. Since 1987 they’ve been a common occurrence, but have they always been as accurate as they were in 2005?

The 1987 election was preceded by a campaign that seemed to suggest that the Conservatives were heading for another landslide victory. However on Election Night, the BBC published a Gallup exit poll that seemed to suggest that everyone else had got it horrendously wrong. They were projecting a national vote share of Con 40%, Lab 35%, Alliance 23%, which suggested a House of Commons comprising 338 Conservative MP’s, 261 Labour, the Alliance on 26 and the Others getting 25.

Given a 2% margin of error, the figures could have reflected a Conservative majority of 86, or a hung parliament with the Conservatives 17 short of a majority. But the BBC stuck to their guns and said “Con majority of 26” as their exit poll forecast. So now all that was needed was a seat to confirm this forecast and in 1987, that seat was Torbay.

Torbay in 1983, like much of the South West of England, had elected a Conservative MP, with the Alliance they were in second place and Labour’s deposit in danger. With the Alliance just 13% behind against an incumbent who was retiring, they were optimistic in 1987. But what was the exit poll suggesting? Con 26,000 votes said Professor Tony King, but when the returning officer made her statement everyone was in for a real surprise!

Not only did the Conservatives hold Torbay, but beat the exit poll into a cocked hat polling 54% of the vote (+1% on 1983). More importantly for the House of Commons forecast, Labour only polled 8% (also +1% on 1983), in other words a negligible swing from Con to Lab: and the effect on the forecast was instantly evident. Instead of 338 Con MPs, the new forecast said 348, instead of 261 Lab MP’s, the new forecast said 252, the Alliance remained on 26 and the Others fell to 24. And so it carried on all evening. As the Conservatives held seats that the exit poll suggested would fall to Labour, the forecast majority continued to climb to the final result of 102.

Ten years later in 1997, battered and bruised from their failed 1992 forecast, the pollsters made sure that they weren’t going to make the same mistake again and completely rejigged their methods to include “the spiral of silence”. This was a theory that supporters of a party that was deemed very unpopular would declare themselves as “don’t knows” or even suggest that they supported another party altogether. So when the BBC election programme started with the exit poll all loaded up and ready for broadcast everyone crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

“There it is, ten o’clock and we say that Tony Blair is to be Prime Minister and a landslide is likely”

Would those words come back to haunt the BBC at the end of election night? Well, remember that margin of error back in 1987? Well, there was also a margin of error on this poll as well and as in 1987 was also 2%, but there was no way even this margin of error could produce a wrong result surely?

Labour 47%, Conservatives 29%, Liberal Democrats 18% (range 16% – 20%). Whichever way you looked at it, it seemed to be suggesting one thing and one thing alone. A massive rejection of the Conservatives and no poll hiccup! And this was confirmed not only by the first Labour gain (Birmingham, Edgbaston) but the second (Portsmouth North) and even the third gain (Crosby), so it looked as though the pollsters had finally perfected the art of polling as Labour did indeed glide into government with the biggest Labour majority ever of 179.

Next week: the 2001 and 2005 elections

Harry Hayfield is a Lib Dem activist in Wales.


Byers: what was he thinking of?

Saturday, August 26th, 2006

One of the bigger political stories in last Sunday’s press was Blairite former cabinet minister Stephen Byers‘s call in the Sunday Telegraph for Labour to abolish inheritance tax as “a penalty for hard work, thrift and enterprise”.

Perhaps predictably, this didn’t go down well with Brownites; the Guardian reported Alastair Darling and other allies of the Chancellor as “stamping on” the idea, before, after or perhaps simultaneous with giving it a “blistering riposte”. In fact, almost no one at all in the Labour party seems to have much time for the idea.

So what was the thinking behind the article? It’s hardly advanced the cause of any Blairite contender for the leadership. Perhaps it was intended to scare Labour MPs representing middle-class marginals (many of the seats they won in 1997, for example) of Brown’s supposed lack of appeal for their constituents. But the Brownite quoted in the Guardian seems to have it about right: “I don’t think Stephen Byers actually believes a word of this nonsense. He’s probably just trying to get a bit of attention or stir up some division in the party, but even the most hardcore Blairite MPs think he’s lost the plot this time.”

The betting markets have paid little attention, with Brown at 0.46/1 to be the next Labour leader.

It would be genuinely interesting to hear contributors’ angles or knowledge on this. All are welcome to comment, and for our readers in SW1, there’s no need to use your real name…

Philip Grant
Guest editor

Mike Smithson returns on 10th September.


Sean Fear’s local elections column

Friday, August 25th, 2006

Universities are still hostile to the Tories

In the days of Sir Maurice Bowra, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, it would have been hard to imagine Oxford as being anything other than a Conservative stronghold. Academics, students, and college servants were all overwhelmingly Conservative in their sympathies, and Conservatives dominated the City Council. Sadly, that has all changed. Mark Senior’s description of the Conservatives as a “minor party” in the City is all too true. The Conservatives don’t have a single councillor, and nor did they even come close to winning a seat on May 5th. They are the fifth party in Oxford, behind the Greens and something called the Independent Working Class Association.

In most areas dominated by universities, the situation is similar. There are no Conservative councillors in Cambridge, although they did manage to win 22% of the vote in May, and achieved close second places in two wards. In Manchester, there is not a single Conservative councillor. In Sheffield Hallam, Conservative until 1997, there are two out of twelve. Bristol West, once safely Conservative, is now dominated by Liberal Democrat councillors. In the student-dominated Headingley ward of Leeds, the Conservative vote is derisory.

There are a few shafts of sunlight for the Conservatives. They gained a seat in Pennsylvania ward, Exeter, and came a strong second in Duryard, both wards dominated by Exeter University. Across Bristol as a whole, they managed to come first in terms of vote share in May, although Clifton and Cotham wards were uncontested this year. But overall, it’s clear that the best way of killing off the Conservative vote in any area is to build a university there.

In a way this is puzzling, as Universities like Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge, and Exeter have large and active Conservative associations. Nor are students anything like as left-wing, in general, as they are often portrayed (most are not particularly interested in politics). But there is no doubt that academics, and university workers, who are much more likely to vote locally than undergraduates, are now well to the left of the population as a whole in their politics. The local elections in May suggest that the Conservatives have made no headway among this section of the population at all, or indeed, among “Guardian Man and Woman” voters generally, in places like Twickenham and Hornsey & Wood Green.

This is hardly an exclusively British phenomenon. In the United States, and Australia, areas dominated by universities are also very strongly left-wing in their political sympathies.

Last night saw three by-elections:-

Harrow LBC: Harrow Weald. Lib Dem 1,288; Conservative 1,088; Labour 295; Green 74. Lib Dem gain from Conservative. This is a very good result for the Lib Dems as it enables them to form a group on Harrow Council. Harrow Weald was for a long time, a Lib Dem stronghold, and it was perhaps surprising that the Conservatives should have taken all three seats in May.

Statford DC: Alcester. Conservative 798; Lib Dem 638; Labour 54. Conservative gain from Lib Dem. A very strong Conservative performance, in a council which the Lib Dems seemed set to capture before 2003.

Elmbridge DC: Walton Central. Resident 656; Conservative 482; Lib Dem 115; Labour 53. Resident Hold.

Sean Fear is a London Conservative activist and writes a weekly column on local elections.


Are these the chinks in Cameron’s armour?

Friday, August 25th, 2006


    The Tory leader’s strengths and weaknesses – Part 2

Following yesterday’s post on Cameron’s strengths today I look at some of the factors that are going to make David Cameron’s task that much harder.

1. The Shadow of Mrs Thatcher. For Cameron this is a double whammy. On one hand there are large sections of the electorate who might warm to the him but would never vote Tory because of continuing hostility caused by the Thatcher years. On the other hand there are those within the Tory fold who find it hard to support a leader who is not in Maggie’s image. To them the argument is simple – in the 80s the Tories enjoyed huge electoral success by following a particular policy agenda so what Cameron should be doing is to follow what she did and the voters will return.

Because unlike Labour, when the “glory days” were in the 1940s, the Thatcherite Tory view is very much in the living memory of Cameron’s critics within his party. It’s for this reason that changing the Tories is a bigger challenge than NuLab had. If Cameron pushes his party too far then there is the danger of public splits.

With NuLab, as well, there was always the belief that “Blair is just doing this to get elected and it will all be different once we are in power”. Cameron does not have that luxury.

2. ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie. The site, run by Iain Duncan Smith’s former aide, has developed into a vehicle for internal opposition to the leadership. Non-Tory visitors are constantly amused by the delight that appears when things go wrong for Cameron. Mongomerie is rapidly taking the role that Arthur Scargill adopted in the early days of NuLab. Thus you could feel for him on Tuesday when that ICM 9% Tory lead had to be reported. If this had been any other party there would have been jubilation- instead Montgomerie’s headline was about the Lib Dem surge. Eh?

3. The lack of media backing. It’s hard to recall a Tory leader who has had so little media support even from what would be seen as natural friends. The Mirror, Guardian and Indy are, of course, solidly against while it’s hard to see the Murdoch press coming on side. Even worse the presence of the joyless but powerful figure of Simon Heffer at the Daily Telegraph has made the party’s “house journal” almost hostile. This could have serious consequences.

4. Cameron’s excess of confidence. That Etonian self-assuredness and self-belief leads him, I believe, to make up policy in real time without fully thinking through the implications. What was the purpose of the Chocolate Orange attack on WH Smith’s or the one against BHS? They got coverage but it all sounded a bit trivial for a party leader.

5. He’s quick to lose his temper. As we saw in the very first leadership debate with David Davis Cameron finds it hard to deal with a hostile response and he appears to get riled easily. He will be provoked again and again and he has to find a way of handling it.

What does all this add up to? I don’t have a conclusion except to state that oppositions don’t usually win elections – Governments lose them. The polls show reasonable Tory progress but Labour still seems hungry for power and the big question is how they will evolve in the post-Blair era. My guess is that Labour without Blair will lose a political edge and if that happens then Cameron’s Conservatives will be well placed provided he has managed Thatcher’s legacy.

Going on holiday. This is my last post until September 10th. I’m off to Nice where my son Robert is marrying Lucille next Friday. It’s Robert who handles the technical aspect of the site and was the person who persuaded me to launch Politicalbetting. He’s been a great inspiration. Lucille did the design.

Book Value (Philip Grant) is now in the hot seat.

Mike Smithson