Sunday, 6 May 2012

Myths and Local Elections

So, the other day I was listening, yet again, to a friendly Tory. Not necessarily an oxymoron to start off with, always it is important to separate the person from the philosophy, else you will have no one to talk to. And I am well aware of the dangers of starting off on an anecdotal footing, but so it goes. Anyhow, they were telling folk about that old adage, how Labour always bugger up the economy and the Tories have to fix it.

Which got me thinking. Is that so? Well, let's see. Taking modern history into account, and by that I mean post World War Two. Before that is, to misquote L.P. Hartley, a "different country, they did things differently then". So, World War Two ends and Attlee takes over. And at the end of his reign, the economy is on a shaky pole. But we must forgive him that, for the extenuous circumstances. A Second World War doesn't happen very often, and it left the UK economy up a creek without a paddle. A sizeable debt to the Americans, bought after extensive bargaining by Keynes, was to add subtext to many issues until it was paid in 2006. So terrible economic problems, yes, but they would have existed whoever was in power, and even then Stafford Cripps economic policies are regarded to have paved the way to better economic times. So we can discount Attlee.

The 50s economy got better through the mid 50s, dipped after Suez, but then got better just in time for the 1959 election. This was due to Harold MacMillans genius for political timing, and was Prime Minister just in time to benefit from the policies he had put forward as Chancellor. (A sort of reverse Gordon Brown if you will!) Subsequent successors to his Chancellorship were not in the same top brand as "Super Mac" though, and we were left in the position when Harold Wilson took over in 1964, only for Jim Callaghan, the New Chancellor, to get a note from his Tory predecessor, Reg Maudling. It read: "Sorry to leave in such a mess." So despite MacMillans economic tricks - which Wilson later admitted nearly worked again in 1964 - that goes down as a bit of a failure.

Then we had the white heat of technology government, which is primarily remembered for devaluation, economically speaking. We wont speak of the Vietnam subtext to that here. We wont even speak of that rare lapse of public tact from Wilson, speaking about the pound in your pocket. But we can focus on Jim Callaghan's replacement as Chancellor after devaluation, Roy Jenkins. Jenkins legacy is such he often gets credited for Home Office successes that occurred before he even had the post! His budget came across as harsh at the time, extensive taxation, but it worked. Britain moved from the brink of disaster to being in economic surplus by 1970. The only problem was Jenkins! His inability to move from a point he had previously reached, which was to be the end of him politically in decades to come, cost Labour the election. He created a budget surplus and then wouldn't use it, and so gave it all to the Tories!

So 1964-70 is a prime example, like MacMillan, of rescuing an economy from the fire.

It'd have been interesting to see how Iain McLeod dealt with that surplus, but alas he was to die far too young. Anthony Barber took over instead, a man of great highs and lows. So the economy of the 70s had great highs and lows. Barber was quick to cut down on Jenkins high taxes but was unable to deal with the  twin issues of high inflation coupled with high unemployment. His flip flopping on issues made the economy Jekyll and Hyde like, but when it fell, coupled with the strikes, it fell hideously.

So Labour were back. And couldn't fix the mess. Oh well.

Then came Thatcher. You might have heard of her. Her economic success, like everything else, depends on your individual point of view. Major's government were in charge for Black Wednesday. Even so, Kenneth Clarke did well in pure economic terms to cut the British deficit by 30 million, before Gordon Brown got to finish the job.

And then we see the tale of two Chancellors. Browns policies worked for a time, but he was unable to foresee the slight snag, which hit him right as he finally became Prime Minister. And now we have George Osbourne, a man with an economic acumen something akin to a sunbedding tortoise.

So where does this leave us? Well, at a draw. Both sides hurt the economy, but both helped save it too.  Great men existed on both sides as much as great errors were committed by both. To say either side was "solely" responsible for economic hardships is to do the topic of political discourse in this country a great disservice.

But that is purely on economics, and they alone do not make a government. And neither do myths.

It is important to think of political myths, for this week saw local elections in the UK, and so all parties are swiftly coming up with their own political narrative of what happened.

We saw this on the night, as the various Tory pundits kept upping the limit of seats Labour would need to win to call the night a success. All eyes were on London, and Boris Johnson just about won the Mayoral election there to give the Tories some good news at the very least. No such joy for the Liberal Democrats, massacred throughout the country.

So who won? It would be easier to list who lost.

The BNP lost every seat they had, and many people rejoiced.
The Lib Dems continued to haemorage councilors and members like it was 1959.

The Green Party, however, got stronger. Gains across the country and a credible third place showing in the London Mayoral. A strong Green Party, and thus showing the closest political bias I have, are fundamental to the political discourse in the country, so more power to them.

UKIP got their highest share of the vote in a "locals only" election, and their increased vote KO'd many a Tory councilor. They didn't make many gains, but that would be a worrying thing for our beloved Prime Minister, as the UKIP vote was taking support away from the Tories. They seemed to concentrate this on the topics of gay marriage and the BNP, rather than look at the real issues within. I wouldn't say an SDP style split is coming in the UK's right - it usually finds a way to avoid it - but the rise of UKIP is a genuine worry for the Tories, and indeed anyone who isn't anti-immigration and multiculturalist.

The Tories kept their London Mayor, just about, despite having many benefits in that race; not least their most Popular Politician (polling 13% or so above his own party) going against one of Labours seemingly least popular. (Ken was polling well below his own party's polling, and roughly 200k Labour voters on Thursday didn't vote for Ken. Had they done so, he'd have won an improbable victory.) Even with that advantage, it was a closer thing than many expected, the 2nd preference votes for the Greens being almost crucial. (That in itself, a justification for the stance Sunny Hundal took as much as the end result was a vilification of Dan Hodges stance.) That the Tories golden boy nearly went down to defeat shows the extent of the backlash against the Tories in these elections. That he won is of greater worry in the long run to David Cameron.

It's a bit like being Kaiserian Germany in World War One. Cameron has two fronts to fight, a renewed Labour party on his left, and the potential challenger to be on his right, Boris. It will make things very interesting and unsettling for our beloved Prime Minister in the future, especially if his Chancellor continues to prove as a worthy successor to Barber.

Calling that Boris win as a success for the Tories is papering over the cracks though. In 2011, Labour won over 800 council seats but the Tories managed to gain 80 - mostly through Lib Dem collapse. In 2012, Labour won over 800 seats, but the Tories managed to lose over 400.

At the start of the night: "350 or so" was Labour's figure for a good night, and also the number Eric Pickles suggested would be a bad night for the Tories. Ouch.

The SNP gained council seats and were winners over all, but disappointingly lost out to the horrid Labour council in Glasgow. And here we repeat the mantra: do not take local events and make them appear as national ones. Correlation does not imply causation!

As I said to my SNP friends, so I repeat here:

"The weather has been blamed for the turn out. A red herring, it was great weather here for those who like the sun. When it is raining, they blame it for low turn out. When it isnt raining, its also. Its other factors.

Complacency, I'd suggest. In the entire election run we got two election leaflets. One small "please vote for SNP" one that didn't detail any policy or why they should be voted for, and an anonymous anti-gay marriage one. Theres been nothing about it outwith the media, and most people dont tend to watch or read that. So it doesnt seem like a vast chunk of people didnt even know there was locals yesterday, and none of the main parties seemed to made much bother to tell folk.
Also, Labour tended to attack Salmond here, and that didn't work as much because Glasgow is Nicola's city. So they linked Nicola to the Murdoch stuff.  There were reports from stations all over the city of people coming out announcing they'd vote against SNP because of their Murdoch links. Which is bringing national politics into local ones, something I had warned *both sides* against (repeatedly, like a broken record), as it not only leaves you looking petty but also leaves you a hostage to fortune. Glasgow wasn't a referendum on Ed as much as it wasnt one on Eck, but when both sides play into that, its going to hurt the smaller core base party more. Which is still the Nats here.
Smarter political minds than mine will point out bigger reasons, I only speak from ground level. And with massive levels of dissapointment, this was a 97 Tories level open goal missed."

Since then, I have learnt that the SNP would have won more seats in Glasgow, but for several ballot papers rejected due to voters voting in First Past the Post Method and not in STV fashion. Jennie Kermode tells me that an SNP leaflet showed a X instead of numbers in the build up. 

I may repeat it many times, but it remains true: you cannot take base national expectations on local events. Time and time again, this proves a political folly. One Tory source, who will remain anonymous, admitted the Tories took Labour lightly due to George Galloways win in Bradford West. Like Galloway, Boris's win was a personality victory in special circumstances. Neither can be seen as evidence of Ed Milibands leadership woes. Just like failure in Scotland can't be seen as failure in David Cameron. I was as worried when the SNP started to gloat that victories in Scotland would see the end of Michelle Forsyth's favourite Outraged Ed. Not only is it unpretty, but it leaves you open to political karma, which likes to grab at people. 

Indeed, Ed Miliband, for all that he isn't, is beginning to remind one of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher won her leadership election because she wasn't Ted Heath, kept in the job because of potential election, won the election because she wasn't Labour, and found herself PM through not being other people. Only then did her greatness, for better or worse, begin to assert itself. I am feeling parallels with Ed Miliband here. His greatest strength at the moment is not being David Cameron, and who knows where that will take him.

On a more serious note, I have noticed that his new style of talking - sans speeches or notes - makes him come across far more realistically in public speaking, and sound more like he means things. Sounding like you mean things is a good trick in politics, so the man who can't be King (surely) takes another step in the right direction.

It was an election that nearly couldn't go wrong for Miliband, even a protesters egg brushed off him with litle notice. Even the Mayoral election could be spinned. Even Glasgow was won when it had seemed lost. Wales nearly became his own little fiefdom, as seat after seat went home to the Labour party. The results, we are reminded, do not have the same swings as we saw under Tony Blair, or even Kinnock. But that is to look at the results in the wrong way. Kinnock and Hagues gains did not equal to an electoral success, but they were fighting from losing landslides. The scales were inbalanced. Miliband is fighting from the position of Hung Parliament. Swings to Labour need not be as strong as the previous two to produce governmental change. A thing to remember.

So what can we learn of these polls?

Well, we need to remember the caveat that few vote in locals, the core supports if you like, so taking those results and extrapolating them to a General Election is foolish, despite the BBC trying to do exactly that.

What it shows me, and I add a further caveat that I am no political genius, is the following:

1. The SNP must learn from the mistakes of Glasgow, else they will repeat them in the future to greater loses. And I mean all of the mistakes, one or two might have been OK, the lot led to a perfect storm.

2. The Coalition must take their loses on board and realise what they mean. Instead they seem to be fighting at both sides. The idea that loses for right wing policy must be dealt with with right wing policy is ideological to the stupid extreme. The fight between "Lib Dem ideals" of reform, and the Tory ideology, will make or break this government in pure governing stances.

3. Labour must unite. All the bickering must end. Never mind David Miliband losing the leadership, that's done and dusted (and possibly a bullet avoided given last years events), you have Ed to deal with. Never mind harkening back to Tony Blair, else you will become like the monetarist Tories who continue to mourn their fallen Thatcher, and hold back their party from properly evolving. The local elections show this as clearly as the London Mayoral. United, Labour can make great gains and even see off this coalition at the first opportunity. But if they continue to be split, as they were in London when several thousand Labour supporters didn't vote for Ken Livingstone, then the only result will be Tory domination. Too often the Left argue about the paragraph when on the same page. There is a time and a place for that. Now is the time to unite or perish.

And finally, if you remember anything, remember this: local events cannot be used to describe national trends. 

Having no doubt written myself into circles, I'll now stop. Its very tricky, balancing on this here fence after all.