Punditry, Revisited

Time to revisit some of the predictions I made before polling day, to see how they stack up in light of events…

Concerning the outcome, I wrote that “my hunch… is that the Tories are going to win fewer than 300 seats.” Well, they made it to over 300, though not by much, but what was really wrong with my guess at the Tory seat-count was that the assumptions I was working from proved to be quite wrong. I thought both that the Lib Dems would win all their seats, and make inroads into the Con-Lib marginals and that the Labour vote would be much less resilient in the Con-Lab marginals – and in the end things were the other way around: the Lib Dem “surge” failed to materialise, and in the end they lost ground to the Tories; while the Labour vote held up pretty well, and the party was able to hold on to 250+ of its seats.

Thinking about the prospect of a hung parliament, then, I said that I thought “a Tory minority government seems by far the most likely outcome”, and that a coalition government “seems implausible”. I gave three reasons: first, the parties hate one another; second, that the Lib Dems were an unbalanced formation, “with the activists to the left of the MPs, and the MPs to the left of the bulk of the Lib Dem voters”, and that this would work to paralyze the party in tricky political manoeuvrings; third, that the Lib Dems’ rules – the so-called “triple lock” – for ratifying a deal would mean that the other party leaders would be reluctant to try to deal with them.

Obviously, I was spectacularly wrong here, apparently on all three counts. First, there really doesn’t seem to be any significant animosity between the Tories and the Lib Dems, but rather the love-fest we’ve been witnessing over the last few days. Second, the initial analysis of data about how people voted seems to have more Lib Dem voters identifying with the centre-left rather than with points further right. (Though I still think that the votes the Lib Dems were chasing most energetically were right-of-centre votes in Lib-Con marginals.) And, third, as we saw today, the “triple lock” was terribly easy for the leadership to get through – I was following the #ldconf tweetfeed earlier today, and apart from one special conference delegate denouncing the coalition as an attack on the Welsh working class, there seemed to be general approval of the leadership’s behaviour, and achievements, over the last week-and-a-bit.

I think the clue to my general wrongness may come, though, in what I went on to get more or less right. I said that I thought that “if there’s a hung parliament, all the party bosses will be acting in a risk-averse kind of a way” as “they’ll all be nervous about a second general election”. But I was imagining that the Lib Dems would be gaining seats in the election, and that a Tory party that had failed to secure a majority would be unwilling to deal with a party that felt itself on an incoming tide. In fact, of course, the story of election night was Lib Dem failure, to the extent that the Lib Dems were sufficiently afraid of the prospect of that second general election that they were willing to countenance transforming themselves into, in effect, the left wing of the Conservative Party in order to avoid it. I thought that this kind of fear would get in the way of two parties making a deal; in fact (as Charles Kennedy confirmed in today’s Observer), it seems to be what made it possible.

Happily, my final paragraph of speculation proved to be spot on – “obviously it won’t turn out” as I forecast, I said, before going on to denounce three specific bits of punditry as fantasy politics: the prospect of a deal on PR, Clegg becoming Prime Minister, or the so-called “progressive alliance” beloved of the Toynbee tendency in the punditocracy. So, at least I got something right.

Oxford West and Abingdon

Like many other people, I thought Evan Harris was safe in Oxford West and Abingdon. There was a reason for thinking he might not be: the constituency boundaries had been redrawn to include less of Oxford and its student-heavy city centre, and more of the outlying Tory villages, but I was inclined to discount the importance of this. In general, the Lib Dems looked good in the polls, and, in particular, polling in marginals suggested that their vote was holding up well against the Tories. Harris’ majority was a healthy 7,683. And the Conservative candidate clearly looked like a bit of an idiot. So, as I say, I thought he was safe.

If I’d really thought he was in danger, I might have voted tactically on the day to try and save him. After all, I’m a not-terribly-tribal tribal Labour person (just as Andromache – who left a dead mouse in our bed this morning – is a not-terribly-wild wild animal). I voted in the Compass ballot to endorse the issuing of a statement in support of anti-Conservative tactical voting, and, more generally, I think the Lib Dems are a less toxic political formation than the Conservatives. If politics really were just about choosing between them, then it wouldn’t be difficult to choose.

But I voted Labour instead, and I learned later in the evening that – basically – it’s people like me who denied Harris his victory. Harris lost by a minuscule 176 votes, and there were almost six thousand Labour votes, so only 3% of those Labour supporters had to switch their votes, in order for him to be safe. And, as time passes, I’m more and more glad I cast the vote I did.

I’ve heard that on election day, the Lib Dems were sending their local activists into Oxford East to help defeat the local Labour MP Andrew Smith, thinking that Evan Harris had the OxWAb election in the bag. And Labour supporters in OxWAb who might be tempted to vote for the Lib Dems need to be clear about this. If we cast an effective anti-Tory tactical vote in this constituency by voting for Evan Harris, what we are doing is helping to provide support for the Lib Dem anti-Labour campaign in the next constituency along. It’s much better for the Labour Party in Oxford that OxWAb is highly marginal between the Lib Dems and the Tories, and that this constituency sucks in as much campaigning effort as possible from the Lib Dems, so that we can concentrate on the important stuff, like winning Oxford East and controlling the City Council. (And, yes, both goals were achieved in Thursday’s election.)

There’s a tweet going round that reads like this:

A curious statistic: Oxford’s combined vote: LD: 41087 Con: 33633 Lab: 27937. One Con MP, one Lab MP. #electoralreform

On the face of it, that’s not a bad argument in support of some kind of reformed voting system — and, in general, I support some kind of reformed voting system. But appearances can be misleading. The Lib Dem raw total, for example, includes both those Labour supporters who cast a tactical pro-Harris vote in OxWAb and those Tory and Green supporters who cast a tactical anti-Smith vote in Oxford East. And so on. We live in a system that encourages tactical voting, as first-choices will so often not be available – so it’s tricky to use the numbers thrown up by that system straightforwardly as evidence for its unfairness.

What we can say is that a set of elections were held on Thursday in Oxford – in two parliamentary constituencies and in every ward for the City Council. The parties fought the elections on the same terms as each other, and under the same rules, and all of the local parties had plausible aspirations: the bigger parties to win parliamentary seats, and the Greens to win seats on the City Council. Those local parties pursued particular tactics and strategies to try to maximise their electoral gains, and the choices they made shaped the outcome of those elections. And those elections threw up a very clear winner — the Labour Party — and a very clear loser — the Lib Dems. The Oxford Lib Dems misunderstood what was going on around them and they over-reached, making a set of bad political choices. They thought they could win everything, and instead they won nothing. And, yes, the voting system has punished them, but not – it seems to me – unfairly.

I’d reach for the language of hubris and nemesis, but these are the Lib Dems we’re talking about, and for them (especially today, of all days, as they engage in talks with the Tories to put David Cameron into Downing St) the appropriate language isn’t that of tragedy.

It’s comedy: hahahahahaha.

People’s Republic of Jericho

Votes in the Jericho & Osney ward here in Oxford have just been counted:

Susanna Pressel (Labour) 1793 votes ELECTED
Catherine Hilliard (Lib Dem) 769 votes
Bill Wilson (Conservative) 513 votes
Kaihsu Tai (Green) 311 votes.

And, once again, results in Oxford are going against the national trend, and it looks as if the local Labour party is going to be consolidating its grip on the City Council.

If you’re curious about why Andrew Smith held on comfortably in Oxford East (despite the fact that the Lib Dem challenger was really quite good) and the Lib Dems crashed and burned in OxWAb (where the Tory challenger was clearly bonkers), then Don Paskini has a very plausible explanation. It certainly rings true to me: in two decades or so of writing to MPs, Evan Harris has been easily the worst correspondent with whom I’ve ever had to deal, and constituents remember this kind of thing.

A Modest Proposal

What if Gordon Brown were to refuse to talk to the Lib Dems, and then were to meet the new parliament at the head of a minority Labour government, in order to present a Queen’s Speech that was organised around great big chunks of the Lib Dem manifesto — including generous dollops of all four “steps to a fairer Britain”: “fair taxes”, “a fair chance for every child”, “a fair future”, and “a fair deal”, with the last to include PR along the lines of the Single Transferable Vote?

In those circumstances, would the Lib Dems dare to vote him down? And wouldn’t the Tories basically be snookered? And wouldn’t we get pretty much all the benefits of the “progressive alliance” that the Polly Toynbees of the world fantasise about without any of the major difficulties (i.e., having the Lib Dems as part of a coalition)?

It might not be the best way forward for the Labour Party. I can see a strong argument for making sure that the Party ends up in opposition. And obviously just having the Lib Dems vote with the Labour government doesn’t quite solve all the problems of parliamentary arithmetic. But if Brown decided he wanted to stay as Prime Minister, why not do it this way? It’d certainly be fun to watch.

Two Views of the General Election

From “William, Prime Minister”, by Richmal Crompton (1930):

“Do shut up int’ruptin’, said Henry, “I’m tryin’ to tell you ‘bout this gen’ral election. There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ‘em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ‘em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice, an’ there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by taking everyone’s money off ‘em and there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves.”

From “The Social Contract”, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762):

The English people thinks it is free; it is greatly mistaken, it is free only during the election of Members of Parliament; as soon as they are elected, it is enslaved, it is nothing. The use it makes of its freedom during the brief moments it has it fully warrants its losing it.

Those seem to me to be the two most important reflections. Am I missing anything else?

A Very British Coup?

So this morning the intertubes is all excited about the prospect of what they’re calling on Twitter the #torycoup.

Roughly speaking, the idea is that in the event of a hung parliament, David Cameron isn’t going to wait patiently for Gordon Brown to deliberate at leisure over his future as prime minister, but is going publicly to declare victory and demand “the keys to Number 10” (which is a funny expression, as the famous front door to 10 Downing St doesn’t have a keyhole in it); and that he’ll be cheered on in doing this by the rightwing press. The normally very sensible Sunder Katwala sets out the argument and the evidence over here, and a version of the argument has also been posted over here.

Count me as seriously unimpressed.

There’s a lot wrong with the British constitution, but one of its virtues is that things get made up as we go along. There’s something absolutely bonkers about lefties – of all people – getting all precious about the ways in which the Cabinet Secretary’s memo about the proper procedures in the event of a hung parliament might not be followed to the letter, or worrying that – my goodness! – the Queen might be drawn into political controversy. How undignified!

People are making analogies with the presidential election in the United States in 2000 — but what was striking then was far more the spinelessness of the Dems rather than the unscrupulousness of the Repugs. The bottom line is that politics is about power, and if the Tories are the only ones willing to play hardball, then – bluntly – good for them.  If the Queen discredits herself along the way by being pressured into being openly partisan, then that’s a good thing, as it’ll work to hasten the end of this stupid monarchy.  And if voters disapprove of what the Tories are doing, then they’ll punish them when they get the chance. That’s democracy.