Archive for the ' General Election' Category


Infrastructure: the Conservatives’ necessary but misplaced priority

Saturday, January 18th, 2020

The Custard Factory is one of Birmingham’s more striking developments.   Its current incarnation is as Birmingham’s answer to Shoreditch (a question that probably did not need asking).  Its history, however, stands as a warning to the government, a warning that it almost certainly will not heed.

The Custard Factory’s name is not, like so many new developments, the product of a random buzzword generator, but a simple statement of its origin.  Until 1964, Bird’s Custard was manufactured on that spot. And then as a direct result of government industrial policy, it desserted the site.

In the decades after the Second World War, Birmingham’s economy boomed.  In 1961, Birmingham household incomes exceeded those of London and the south east.  Successive governments fretted about how Birmingham and London were leaving the rest of the country behind.  Central government took direct measures to spread their success to more deprived regions. First they restricted industrial development, then they restricted office development.  The city of a thousand trades was booming and this was a crisis. Introducing the order placing restrictions on office development in 1965, the government minister saw this as a “threatening situation”.

In words that now seem prophetic, the MP for Sutton Coldfield at the time opposed the measure:

“This Order is a kind of penalty on the success of the West Midlands and Birmingham, imposed admittedly by the Government in order, as they believe, to help somewhere else. There is a growing anxiety in Birmingham that the Government may have carried too far this process of siphoning off the prosperity of the Midlands to other areas. I can give examples which are germane to this Order. In Birmingham on Monday I heard of firms, which provide employment similar to that affected by this Order, being forced to leave the city. These firms, to a considerable extent, are firms which are independent of cyclical fluctuations of trade.

The manufacturers of Bird’s Custard, a food product, who have been in the city for a great many years, were quoted as an example. The motor industry, on the other hand, is a cyclical industry and whilst Birmingham is very prosperous, it and the Midlands, to the extent of dependence on the motor industry, are living dangerously in their prosperity. Therefore, it hurts these areas the more when industrial and commercial employment of a non-cyclical kind leave the area. Such a movement can prove a great future potential loss to the city and surrounding area.”

The Order was highly effective, at least so far as Birmingham was concerned.  Birmingham no longer has the problems of success. It has a lower GVA per head than the national average – and lower than Liverpool, for example.  It was, however, much less effective at boosting the economy of struggling areas, many of which have remained in relative decline to this day.

55 years on, and Britain has another government looking to siphon off the prosperity of successful regions to struggling areas.  There isn’t much evidence that the government has any better idea how to do it this time than it did in the 1960s.

The government seems set to divert infrastructure spending away from the areas of the country that are prospering to the forgotten north.  This isn’t a new idea either. Nor did it prove a particularly successful idea either. At the same time as Birmingham’s business was being run off, the Humber Bridge was commissioned.  Hull and Grimsby are better connected to each other, but both still languish economically. A lot more than infrastructure is needed to breathe new life into depressed areas of the country.  Past experience has shown that if you only build a field, they won’t come.

The government doesn’t really have a choice.  Its newly-elected backbenchers made great play in their local campaigns of fighting for infrastructure investment.  If they don’t deliver, they’ll be up against it at the next election. If you’ve successfully won seats on the basis that your opponents have taken their voters for granted, you really can’t afford to take them for granted yourself.

This gives the government two big problems.  First, if it is going to invest in infrastructure in previously forgotten areas, it is going to come up with a clear rationale for how it is going to prioritise investment.  Previously, governments have worked on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis (which is why London has done so well – as by far the most prosperous and successful area of the country, projects can easily demonstrate bang for buck).  If that metric is to be abandoned, what is going to be put in its place? The government has as yet given no clear statement of principle but without one, the likelihood of pester power winning out is high, with projects allocated on the basis of influential backbenchers’ ability to buttonhole ministers.  Majestic herds of albino pachyderms can be sighted lumbering towards us on the horizon.

And second, if improving infrastructure is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reviving failing areas of the country, what else is the government going to do?  Shooing business away from London won’t work. Wooing it away might. Again, however, the government has so far shown no trace of having thought about how it might do this.  

The big risk is that the government will fail to provide the investment in infrastructure that the successful parts of the country need and instead provide investment in infrastructure in the declining parts of the country without providing the additional support to provide the economic turnaround that they urgently need.  The country has enough problems at the moment without massively misallocating resources at a time when the public finances are already under serious strain. The government needs to set out some very clear principles. And soon.

Alastair Meeks


The Blair Supremacy. Rating Corbyn as a politician

Sunday, January 12th, 2020

Memo to Mr Corbyn and his supporters: This is what the winning the argument looks like. So no Miss Long-Bailey, Corbyn’s doesn’t deserve 10 out of 10 as a politician unless you’re a Tory.

I suspect once Labour come to terms that Blair is the only Labour politician to have won a majority in the 45 years then they will begin their road to recovery.



Will the Conservatives increase their majority at the next election?

Sunday, January 5th, 2020


Ladbrokes have a market up on the Conservatives increasing their majority at the next general election. I can understand why some will want to back the 4/1.

Boundary changes would see the Conservative majority increase to around 104 if the vote shares remained identical at the next election and if Labour choose electoral Ebola in the form of Ian Lavery then this bet looks like a winner.

I’m always wary of markets where the bookmaker doesn’t offer the other side of the bet add in that there so many unknowns, inter alia,

  • Who will be the Labour leader? Will they be a Corbyn clone or chose a leader who will move to centre ground where Labour have won majorities in the last forty six years?
  • Will Brexit turn out to be a success, a mistake, or just a bit middling?
  • How will the economy perform between now and the next election, I cannot see a cyclical recession (or a Brexit related recession) help the Conservatives increase their majority.
  • What kind of government will Boris Johnson deliver?
  • How much time will the Red Wall seats that switched to the Conservatives give Boris Johnson? 

There are a few other unknowns I could list but these are the main ones, so for me it is no bet at the moment, I am sure 2020 will bring a few 4/1 or better bets that will pay out a lot sooner than 2024.



Starmer takes clear lead in first YouGov members’ poll of LAB leadership election

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

Amongst first preferences the poll has:

31% Starmer

20% Long-Bailey

11% Phillips

7% Cooper

6 Lewis

6% Thornberry

5% Nandy

Assuming it came to just Starmer versus Long-Bailey poll has Starmer on 61% to Long-Bailey’s 39%.

In the last two leadership elections the membership gave Corbyn a clear lead.

Mike Smithson


As the New Year begins Stodge asks “Is Britain Now a One-Party State?”

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

After the 1992 General Election, the fourth consecutive Conservative victory, the Times, in its wonderful statistical summary, described the Conservatives as “the natural Party of Government” and Labour as “the natural Party of Opposition”. Despite a poor economic outlook and 13 years of Government, John Major surprised the polls and most pundits by coming home victorious.

In the aftermath, there were those who believed somehow the electoral laws had been overcome and the Conservatives could and indeed would never lose power.

Well, we all know how accurate that was.

As a semi-detached observer of the recent General Election, I was struck by how little anyone mentioned the Government’s record – I barely heard Theresa May or even David Cameron’s name spoken and little or nothing of what the Conservatives had achieved in Government since 2015 let alone 2010. You would have been forgiven for thinking Boris Johnson was the leader of an insurgent opposition campaigning against a weak incumbent Government which seemed to have no voice in its defence.

Incredibly, after nearly a decade in Government, Boris Johnson was able to convince a great many voters he led a “new” Conservative Party and was determined to sweep away the drift and decay of the previous, er, Conservative Government. Tony Blair, whose voice I hear ever more loudly when I hear Boris Johnson, succeeded in re-inventing Labour in Opposition as a non-socialist party of the centre or centre-left for whom many millions of disillusioned Conservatives could vote.

Boris’s achievement has been somewhat different – he has re-invented the Conservative voting coalition around three mutually over-lapping groups. First, the 75% of current LEAVE voters (totalling 36% of the total electorate assuming the current split is 52-48 for REMAIN). Second, the one sixth of REMAIN voters so between 8 and 9% of the electorate – that group can be subdivided into two:

First are the REMAIN voters who disagree with the 2016 Referendum result but believe it needs to be enacted and second those who may disagree with the 2016 Referendum result but were far more scared of a Corbyn Government. These three groups gave the Conservatives their 44-45% vote share.

The campaign made no difference – once Johnson had sealed the Conservative leadership election thanks to the ComRes poll published on June 11th the rest was inevitable. He was able to eliminate the existential threat of the Brexit Party and harnessed the above factions into a clear majority. 

All else was obfuscation.

The 2020s (well, at least the first half) belong to the Conservatives and by 2024 they will have been in power for 14 years. History tells us nothing lasts forever and physics tells us what goes up must eventually come down so the Conservative vote share, which has risen inexorably from its 1997-2001 nadir back to levels surpassing the Thatcher high water marks of the 1980s, will one day fall back.

Yet will that “fall” be a brief hiatus or a meaningful change in voting patterns? Many seem to assume once Brexit has been delivered or “done” to use the vernacular, everyone will go back to old allegiances assuming nothing had ever happened. I’m less convinced.

It could be that while the apparent lack of a credible alternative continues, the Conservatives, rather like the Mexican PRI or the LDP in Japan, will continue to be in Government, periodically changing its leader and direction while retaining the reins of Government. After all, who would have conceived after her third successive election victory that Margaret Thatcher would be ousted by her own MPs but that even with that shattering event, the Conservatives would win another election and remain in power for another six and a half years?

Perhaps such a fate will befall Johnson – one thing is clear, the moment he looks like a loser his days will be numbered especially if A.N Other, S.O Else or Rishi Sunak start looking like winners.

How then does the Conservative giant get toppled? One thought is if you are going to campaign against Johnson you have to re-discover the art of being happy. Miserable realism butters no parsnips against unyielding optimism – Johnson won the UK in 2019 the same way he won London in 2008 – by being relentlessly upbeat and offering a positive message for people tired of downbeat negativity.

Sometimes it’s the message but more often it’s the messenger. Making someone feel happy and good about themselves and their country is far more effective than telling an unvarnished negative truth. 

Indeed, just telling someone “it’s going to be all right” is a pretty strong message. “Get Brexit Done” resonated simply because it offered an end to deadlock and drift. As a message it leaves far more questions than answers but tired and frustrated people are always willing to take a leap of faith even if they know not where it will take them.



Tory and SNP landslides – Blair’s lasting legacy?

Sunday, December 29th, 2019


In 1997 Labour swept to a landslide victory sweeping all parts of Britain. In Scotland winning 45.6% of the vote and 77.8% of the seats. In England winning 43.5% of the votes and 62.0% of the seats. One of Blair’s first and most consequential acts was to bring in devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but left English laws controlled by Parliament with no answer to the West Lothian Question. Supposedly a decision that was intended to “kill nationalism stone dead” in Scotland, while permitting Labour to use its historic strength in Scotland and Wales to assist in votes in England – as controversially first occurred when Scottish Labour MPs voted to increase tuition fees in England while Scottish Labour MSPs were ensuring Scottish students paid no fees.

Flash forward 22 years and our politics is looking very different. Much has been written about the causes and effects of Labour’s defeat this year – Brexit and Corbyn especially. However I would posit one other factor that predates both Corbyn and Brexit: devolution itself.  In Scotland 2015 was the first election in 60 years in which Labour failed to come first in seats. In England in 2015 the lead party of government performed the rare feat of increasing both its share in votes and seats.

Traditionally there has been a “pendulum” effect in politics as votes have swung from government to the opposition. Governments make decisions which can be unpopular from which the opposition benefit – however in 2019 looking individually at the results in both England and Scotland the pendulum is broken. 13 years after first winning the Holyrood election the SNP gained in both votes and share, winning seatwise a landslide bigger than Blair’s in 1997 (45.0% of the vote, 81.4% of the seats).

While UK-wide the Conservatives fell short of the 100 seat majority that is often used to define a landslide, the Tories in England alone won a landslide bigger than Blair’s in 1997 (47.2% of the vote, 64.7% of the seats) – this nine years after entering Downing Street, it was the 6th election in a row since 1997 that the Conservatives had increased their share of the vote, the third since entering government.

Thanks to devolution the SNP have an ability to portray themselves as the opposition to Tory central government while being in office. Thanks to devolution the Conservatives have an ability to portray themselves as the opposition of a Labour and SNP ‘coalition of chaos’, or Labour being in the SNP’s pocket.

Looking forward, without boundary changes, Labour require 124 extra seats in order to gain a majority of just 2. If Labour can’t regain seats in Scotland then that requires winning nearly as many seats in England as they did in 1997 just to get a simple majority. Simply to deprive the Conservatives of a majority in England, Labour or the Liberal Democrats will need to gain 79 seats from the Conservatives.

If Labour next time gain approximately 70 seats from the Conservatives they could be in a position to enter Downing Street with the support of the SNP and to run English politics which are not devolved, but with the Conservatives having a majority of English seats and able to block any English-only laws under English Votes for English Laws. The constitutional implications of that are complicated.

If devolution, especially unequal devolution as designed and implemented by Tony Blair’s government, is partially responsible for Labour’s woes now then there are two lessons to learn from this. Firstly to be careful for what you wish for and what you do. Unequal devolution was meant to be to Labour’s partisan advantage but by separating Scotland’s governance from England they’ve cost themselves Scotland and hindered their potential in England.

Secondly that a solution will be required to reverse these effects of devolution. Questions need to be answered: What unique offer does the Labour Party have for Scotland? How can Labour run England without the threat of the SNP pulling their strings? How will Labour answer one nation’s concerns without putting off the voters in the other country?

Brexit may be “done” technically before the next election, Corbyn may be replaced by the Spring. But unless the devolution settlement gets addressed too then Labour’s issues will remain. Brexit and Corbyn alone are not responsible for the fact that the parties of government in both England and Scotland have both just broken the pendulum and both gained a seat share in those nations separately larger than Blair won in 1997.

Unintended consequences can be a remarkable thing, but could Blair’s first acts with his landslide be the cause of his party struggling into the future? Finally let this be a warning to the governments in both Westminster and Holyrood – if you do something uneven because it looks like smart politics, be prepared for it to backfire.

Philip Thompson

Philip Thompson is a longstanding PBer


What sort of fool would have predicted the politics of 2020 in 2010? Me.

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

Andy Welsh Flickr

Time for the reckoning on my long-term calls

At the start of the decade, I asked what politics in the UK would look like ten years hence. That time has now arrived, so let’s look at how I did and, beyond that, how anyone could have done.

Predicting a few weeks ahead can be a hazardous business; predicting a decade into the future would be foolhardy in the extreme which is probably why observant readers will notice that I dodged my own question and made very few predictions as such. I listed problems, challenges and opportunities; history and precedent to similar situations that the country was in in 2010; and then said nothing specific.

However, the main prediction I did make – that the party structure could well undergo a convulsion – was right: by 2016, the SNP had replaced Labour as the main party of Scotland (indeed, they dominate it to a greater degree than Labour ever did – Labour never won an outright majority at Holyrood or more than 95% of Westminster seats), UKIP overtook the Lib Dems as the third-best supported party for several years before fading to irrelevance, the Lib Dems themselves fell from sixty-three MPs at the start of the decade to eight after the 2015 election, from where they’ve barely recovered bar flattering to deceive this summer just gone. Both the Tories, who fell to fifth and a single-figures share of the vote in this years’ EP election, and Labour, who explored new lows for a main opposition, also flirted with disaster but ultimately came through in one piece despite near-unprecedented numbers of defections, splits and expulsions this year alone.

But how much of that has been down to chance and how much was predictable? As mentioned in the 2010 article, the stresses within the system were plain for anyone to see. Whether a government took a lead in cutting back on spending or whether they were forced into it by the markets was for them to choose but either way the result would have been that the public would have to get used to less – and that could only but have consequences.

Less foreseeable was the coalition government that did so much to advance UKIP and the Greens at the expense of the Conservatives and Lib Dems. Indeed, even as the election night results came in, few foresaw a full-blown coalition resulting. Likewise, few would have seen the SNP performing so spectacularly well across the decade. Against a Conservative government in Westminster and an SNP one in Holyrood, the natural assumption was that Labour would retake control in Scotland in 2011 (indeed, that was precisely what the polls were showing in early 2011). That, however, would have been to predict solely on the great tides of history – the swing of the pendulum – and would have ignored the qualitative difference the candidates for First Minister; a factor which proved crucial once campaigning started. Later on in the decade, when the party leaders would have been unknown to someone at the start of 2010, the great tides would have been all the analyst had to work on; for an election within eighteen months, he or she could have been more specific. I should have been more specific; the data to analyse was there.

(Oddly, for once the Tory leader at the end of the decade was someone who might well have been the favourite to hold the post ten years hence in 2010 but precious few other office-holders; Nicola Sturgeon is arguably the only significant other.)

Ironically, UKIP’s advance against Labour was more predictable: by 2010, Labour’s socially conservative working class core vote was clearly becoming estranged from the middle class university educated progressives dominating the party and its thinking. That swing didn’t occur until after UKIP had already eaten into a share of the Conservative vote but it was always a strong possibility.

The domino effect of all these effects and outcomes, which fed on each other, rapidly becomes far too complex to game years ahead, even without the inevitability of unknowable events being thrown into the mix. We could have foreseen that Europe would continue to cause the Conservatives difficulty but who could have known that there’d be a migrant/refugee crisis across Europe from the Middle East at the same time as the UK would hold a referendum on EU membership?

What’s notable by its omission is Brexit – though arguably I speculated on change of that sort of nature in the penultimate paragraph of the article, in that the change and the issue that have dominated politics for the second half of the decade came not particularly from pressures within the party system but from outside it. It’s true that there was a split within the Tory Party on Europe but it was one of long-standing which had always been managed; what prompted the referendum pledge was the rise of UKIP’s support.

Even so, looking back, it’s remarkable that the word itself wasn’t coined until 2012 and yet only three years later the government was legislating to provide for a clear route to enable Brexit to happen, even if it was a route that the government itself was opposed to.

Similarly, while the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 ended up confirming the status quo, it nonetheless placed that status quo under threats not seen for many decades – and ones which clearly haven’t yet been anything like resolved.

Returning to the party system, was the accuracy of the prediction of convulsions in the party structure down more to luck than judgement? I don’t think so. The precise mechanisms might have been impossible to anticipate but the parallels with previous times of turmoil combined with the discipline expected of MPs, the centralisation of campaigning and the already high levels of public dissatisfaction with the establishment parties all pointed in the same direction.

Still, Brexit and (non-)Scottish independence could well be small beer compared with what the 2020s is likely to throw at us.

David Herdson

p.s. On a more recent note, my predictions for 2019 turned out reasonably well. I missed that parliament would force Brexit extensions on the government (and in so doing, create space for a change of Tory leader and PM before Brexit occurred), which threw out the timescales but the inherent logic and dynamics more or less played out otherwise.


The Leave seat with a miniscule LAB majority that didn’t fall

Friday, December 27th, 2019

Why didn’t bellwether Bedford swing?

Even though it was a fortnight ago I’ve still not found an answer to what appeared to be an inexplicable outcome in my seat of Bedford. This is a constituency that at GE2010, GE2015, GE2017 and the referendum voted most of all 650 seats in line with the country as a whole. Longstanding PB regular, Andy JS, highlighted the seat’s status before GE2019 and certainly on hearing the exit poll many, including me, assumed that the Tories with their energetic young candidate had won it back.

Indeed after that dramatic news at 10pm on December 12th Bedford was projected to be a 99% certain CON gain returning to what it was from 2010 to 2017.

This didn’t happen. One theory, that there was a counting error which wasn’t picked up on night, I don’t buy. In tight seats the counting agents appointed by the parties play a key role watching how it progresses and looking out for possible issues like ballot papers which are put into piles being allocated to the wrong contender. If something had been amiss it would have been picked up.

My own theory is twofold. Firstly there is an established pattern of first time incumbents getting a bonus at the general election following the one when they were elected for the first time. Secondly the area with its six trains or more an hour  London service  has led to an increasing proportion of households where at least one person is a commuter. Its voting pattern could be said to be more akin to what we see in the capital than in less accessible places which are closer. Indeed the LAB-CON swing was within about half of a percent of the London outcome.

Mike Smithson