13 May 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 May 2010

Quite understandably, most political commentary on the general election has focused on the extraordinary aftermath – Gordon Brown’s decision to stay in Number 10 Downing Street, David Cameron negotiating terms for coalition with Nick Clegg, Brown’s resignation – but I’m not going to deal with any of that here. I'm filing before it has all been sorted out.

Instead, I want to concentrate on the results and what they mean for Labour. Like every other Labour supporter, I went into election night in a nervous mood. Labour’s election campaign had been very variable in quality and energy. Brown ended on a high, but before that plumbed the depths of campaigning incompetence, and anecdotal evidence suggested that Labour’s local efforts were far from uniformly vigorous even in marginal seats.

The polls forecast a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party, but the figures were so tight that anything seemed possible from a safe Tory majority to Labour emerging as largest party despite coming third in share of the vote – and who could tell whether the polls were right?

As became clear in the course of the night, all the polls apart from the exit poll had got it significantly wrong, underestimating Labour’s share of the vote and overestimating the Liberal Democrats’. And although the exit poll got overall national shares of the vote right and forecast the seats each party would win astonishingly accurately on the assumption of uniform national swing, there were actually wild variations in swing among different regions and among constituencies in the same region.

There are nevertheless some general conclusions that can be drawn. First, Labour did a lot better overall than pessimists had feared, performing very well in Scotland and London and to a lesser extent in Wales and its northern English heartlands. Second, however, it did very badly (with notable exceptions) in East Anglia and southern England, and almost as badly (outside the major conurbations) in the Midlands.

Labour now holds only two seats in the East Anglia region – Luton North and Luton South. It lost 11 out of 13 seats won in 2005, including all of them in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

In the south-east region, the party lost 13 of its 17 seats: its representation is reduced to Oxford East, Slough and two seats in Southampton. There are no Labour MPs any more in Kent or Sussex. In the south-west, Labour lost eight out of 12 seats it held, in the East Midlands 12 out of 26 (but with one gain), in the West Midlands 14 out of 38.

Of course, history never quite repeats itself – but I have a horrible sense of déjà vu. For Labour, it’s 1987 all over again, with the major difference that the Lib Dems did a lot better this year than the Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1987 and the Tories under Cameron did a lot worse than under Margaret Thatcher. Labour is back to where it was not just before New Labour, but before Neil Kinnock’s policy review.

The first analyses of voting by class appear to show that Labour’s 2010 problem is much the same as its 1987 problem. Relatively affluent lower-middle-class and skilled working-class voters in the south, the east and the midlands, the C1s and C2s who voted in their droves for Labour in 1997 and mostly stayed on board in 2001 and 2005, feel that the party has nothing to offer them.

So what to do? The extraordinary circumstances of the moment mean that very few Labour minds are focused on what the party needs to do to revive its electoral fortunes in the medium term. But under any possible scenario – including the very unlikely one of the next general election taking place under proportional representation – the thinking is going to have to start soon. Whatever happens, Labour is going to have to work out how to change to attract the C1 and C2 voters it has lost, in terms both of programme and of personnel.

It will not be easy. Recycling the old New Labour riffs about being tough on crime and immigration – which were at the core of the party’s message during this campaign – cannot cut the mustard. Nor can the Blairite mantra of public service reform. “Economic competence” is a busted flush, and there are few votes in constitutional reform or environmentalism. The obvious left alternative, a return to an early-1980s “fight the cuts” agenda, is a recipe for disaster.

Brown is going, but to be replaced by whom? It has to be someone fresh yet credible both with the party and with the voters. I’d go for David Miliband myself – but will the party as a whole?

This looks like being a tough time for Labour. At least, however, there is no sign of a hard-left revolt against the party establishment as happened 30 years ago. We might be all at sea, but no one yet is insisting that we steer bravely for the rocks.

  • Written before David Cameron and Nick Clegg signed up for coalition

10 May 2010


I've had enough of idiotic Tories and BBC hacks talking bollocks about "unelected prime ministers". We've got a parliamentary system. Some basic facts about British prime ministers:

Balfour 1902, Asquith 1908, Lloyd George 1916, Bonar Law 1922, Baldwin 1923 and 1935, Chamberlain 1937, Churchill 1940, Eden 1955, Macmillan 1957, Douglas Home 1963, Callaghan 1976, Major 1990, Brown 2007 ... all took office without leading a winning party in a previous general election.

And 10 of 14 of these PMs (counting second "unelected" appointments) were Tories. Were they all entirely illegitimate?


Well, there's something of the cool dude about Gordon Brown after all. I thought he'd do something like this after watching the statement he made on Friday about staying in office and ensuring a stable transition - but the timing is exquisite. Just as the Tories and Lib Dems reach stalemate in their negotiations (or have they?) he announces that he's going in due course and that a deal is potentially on with the Lib Dems. I remain sceptical about the outcome (it's not even clear that the Lib-Con negotiations have broken down) but it's at least worth a go. Keeping the Tories out is an honourable goal. For what it's worth, I'm for David Miliband as Labour leader.


Despite my aversion to prediction, I’d be prepared to put money on the next general election taking place under the first-past-the-post electoral system. The obstacles in the way of even the introduction of the alternative vote – which is in no sense a system of proportional representation – look too great under just about any scenario for the resolution of Britain’s post-election stalemate.

The main reason is simple: there is almost certainly a Commons majority against even holding a referendum on electoral reform, comprising the overwhelming majority of Tories and a substantial minority of Labour MPs. The absolute maximum David Cameron is prepared to concede to the Lib Dems on electoral reform (at least as far as anyone is aware) is a free vote in the House of Commons on whether or not there should be a referendum. And the best that Labour can offer the Lib Dems is a promise to whip its MPs to back a referendum – a promise that would be difficult to keep despite a referendum being pledged in Labour’s manifesto. (A bill introducing AV without a referendum is in my view not a realistic option, in part because, as a constitutional bill, it would have to be subject to a free vote, in part because it would appear to be shameless gerrymandering. But we shall see ...)

Precisely what the numbers are no one knows. The third of MPs elected for the first time are obviously an unknown quantity, and there are no reliable records of views on electoral reform even among the returnees. Plenty of people, among them Gordon Brown, have changed their minds.

Nevertheless, having followed this story for getting on for 20 years, my best guesses are (a) that at least 20 Labour MPs are died-in-the-wool supporters of the FPTP status quo whose opposition even to a referendum is such that they would defy the whip to stop one; and (b) that no more than a half-a-dozen Tories would vote for a referendum in a free vote (and most of them would toe the party line in a whipped vote on a referendum that would be a de facto vote of confidence in a Labour-Lib Dem government or Labour government with Lib Dem support).

I could of course be wrong – but even if I am, and a referendum bill were to be passed, what would happen next? Hunch tells me that a referendum would be most likely to take place the same day as the next election, which would be held under FPTP. (There are reasons for the hunch that I'll explain anon if anyone's interested.) But even if there were a referendum before the next election, how would it pan out? With the Tories and the press lined up against “destabilising” change, the chances are that reform would be rejected.

I’m sorry if this seems unduly pessimistic, but the time for electoral reform was in Labour’s first term a decade ago. It’s one of those big changes that can only be introduced as a matter of principle by a popular government with a stonking majority. I suppose Brown and Clegg might just bet the bank on "instant AV", and it might just carry in parliament ... but I really can't see it.

  • Update 1 Well, it really is desperation stakes ... The Tories are now offering a referendum on AV (Hague goes "the extra mile") and Labour, with Brown on the way out, appears to be touting instant AV. I might be wrong here, but I'm sticking to my guns about what transpires.
  • Update 2 I must say that the Lib Dems' negotiating strategy has been brilliant ... they've got offers much better than they could have hoped. Still sceptical on electoral reform, however.