Can we ever change political perceptions?

The ‘Shy Tory’ is a concept which has plagued pollsters since the 1992 election and last Thursday we saw it return with a vengeance. This concept is based on the idea that many voters are reluctant to admit they vote for the Conservatives and therefore mislead the polls. Why, because the Tories are still viewed as the nasty party and voters are scared of being associated with them, even if in reality they will vote for them.

This matters because in an open society people should be encouraged in expressing what they believe, including the political party which they support. Politics is surely at its best when a spectrum of different opinions are discussed and debated. This does not go for just the commentariat but for the general public as a whole. If people are scared to say what they really believe then politics and arguably society is the loser.

If this is to change and political debate is to become more open, then long held perceptions of political parties need to change. Political parties on all sides of the spectrum struggle with certain labels, often regardless of the reality. Labour have traditionally struggled to gain trust on the economy whereas the Tories have traditionally struggled to gain trust on the NHS. For a long time both parties have attempted to change these perceptions, but with very limited success. Therefore it is perfectly valid to ask whether these views can ever be changed.

Entrenched political views and ideas can be hard to change, but this is no reason to simply give up. The responsibility rests on us all, political parties, the media and the general public regardless of political views or persuasion to be less partisan and judge policies fairly rather than lazily judging based on political stereotypes which only further embeds long held perceptions.  Perhaps the biggest challenge will be for all political parties to stop using labels as a way of alienating the public from an opposition party.

This will inevitably be a long process we one that we ought to start now. Our country prides itself on freedom of speech and the freedom of expression and if people do not feel comfortable declaring who they will vote for, we have freedom of expression in word only. That is why the ‘Shy Tory’ voter should concern everyone interested in politics.

 

How Labour can win in 2020

The scale of Labour’s general election defeat, its worst since 1987, and the multitude of reasons behind it, coupled with the Conservative boundary changes, means that Labour has a mountain to climb to win in 2020. The triple bind of SNP’s inexorable rise, traditional Labour voters in the North switching to UKIP and the inability to convince English voters of Labour’s economic competency, perceived lack of centrist values and possible reliance on the SNP resulted in a perfect storm scenario for Ed Miliband. Although a Labour victory seemed unlikely in the light of the Conservatives’ commanding advantage in both economic management and Prime Ministerial ratings, calls to return to New Labour Mark II downplay the underlying reasons for this crushing defeat. A radical and multi-faceted approach is required if Labour intends to claw back a 100 seat deficit against a post-austerity Conservative Party by 2020.  After taking for granted its traditional voters in Scotland and the north, Labour now needs to reach out to these voters and address their concerns. In Scotland, a self-governing Labour party, which is no longer ran as a branch office is a must. An independent Scottish Labour should attack SNP’s lack of progressive credentials and redistributive policies, especially if full fiscal autonomy is granted to Scotland, thus depriving the nationalists of its get-out clause of blaming Westminster. This strategy, combined with the SNP’s inevitable drop from such dizzying heights, could be the beginning of Labour’s recovery in Scotland. The next Labour leader will also need to reach out to those UKIP voters left behind by New Labour and globalisation, breaching the subject of English identity, immigration, and possibly most importantly, integration in order to not alienate more centrist Labour voters and work within the realities of our (presumed) membership in the EU. The introduction of a contributory benefits system, as mooted by Jon Cruddas in the past, could also be a step in proving that Labour is on the side of workers and neutralising benefit tourism. Additionally, UKIP’s fluid positions on the NHS, tax cuts for the rich, small state neo-Thatcherism provide significant targets for Labour to attack on and win back disillusioned voters. Finally, Labour need to promote a more positive, aspirational message supported by economic credibility aimed towards the 90% of voters not in the super-rich apex or the disadvantaged base of society, to win back marginal seats in the Midlands and South. If Labour can marry its credibility for the intrinsic social justice values present in the British electorate and demonstrate that it has learnt lessons from past mistakes on the economy, immigration and loyalty, then the long journey back to power can begin.

Labour can still win outright, here’s how!

Most pollsters and pundits seem to have already accepted the result of the next election. A hung parliament has been factored in and the only debate has been about the make-up of potential coalitions after the election.

Publicly Labour and the Conservatives refuse to listen to what the polls are saying and maintain that they are fighting for an overall majority. In order for Labour to form a majority they would need to improve significantly on the 256 seats they ended on at the dissolution of the Parliament, some 70 seats short of the 326 needed to form a majority. The current electoral system favours the Labour Party, even though they start from a pretty low base. The system generally means they will not have to poll as highly as the Conservatives to gain an overall majority.

Ed Miliband has been much maligned during his leadership and has trailed David Cameron significantly in the leadership stakes. An impressive performance in the television debates has greatly improved his numbers. If voters become less concerned about the prospect of Miliband becoming Prime Minister and the leadership numbers narrow between him and Cameron, Labour are likely to gain.

A proportion of voters are still not feeling the recovery and remain scared of potential Tory cuts, most notably in welfare. These fears alongside the negative campaign being fought by the Conservatives, leave room for a compelling Labour message which can still attract undecided voters.

By exploiting these factors, Labour should give themselves a good chance in many marginal seats. They would expect to take many seats off the Lib Dems who face the prospect of a hard election. This could bring Labour close to the finishing line.

The main problem for Labour is the SNP surge in Scotland. Labour HQ believe this will fade as the election draws nearer and voters’ minds in Scotland are focused on the choice between a Conservative government and a Labour government.

Labour have much to do and a long way to go to gain that  majority, but if these factors were all to line up there is still a possibility of a substantial late swing towards the party, perhaps even enough to see them across the line.

The Tories can still win outright, here’s how!

The televised debates between the major leaders have failed to yield a significant breakthrough for either of the two major parties according to the opinion polls. Both Labour and the Conservatives are still neck in neck with a hung parliament appearing to be the most likely outcome out of this General Election.

Both major parties and their leaders are insistent that they are still fighting for a majority. The Conservatives though arguably have an easier task as they ended Parliament with 302 MPs, less than 25 short of an overall majority. They could even achieve this by not taking any seats off the Labour Party and concentrating on winning seats off the Lib Dems.

Polling is not an exact science and has to be taken with a pinch of salt as evidenced by the polls of the 1992 General Election. Historically the polls have tended to underestimate the Conservative vote and traditionally there is also a late swing towards the governing party. If these factors were to occur again at this election, the Tories could perform better than any of the polls are currently suggesting.  Perhaps even 25 seats better.

The rise of the SNP offers more hope with the belief that voters in England will become more worried about a Labour government propped up by the SNP and so move towards the Tories. Allied to this, there are signs in some polls that UKIP’s vote is currently being squeezed. Proportionally UKIP still take more votes from the Tories than they do from Labour and if this squeeze materializes on Election Day, then this will benefit the Tories.

There is also a feeling within Tory HQ that people have not started paying attention to the forthcoming election yet and when this happens voters will inevitably move towards the Conservative Party. Questions over economic competence and leadership, both areas on which the Tories have a lead will come more sharply into focus in the final few days of campaigning.

A hung parliament may be seen as a given by most in the political bubble, but there is a plausible case to be made that the Tories can still win this election outright and can gain a majority. Inaccurate polls, a late swing to the governing party and the fear factor of the SNP.  Suddenly 25 extra seats might not be so far out of reach.

 

Labour must be more aggressive in fighting the SNP!

Recently Alex Salmond gave a very provocative interview to Andrew Marr in which he stated that ‘if you hold the balance, you hold the power’. He then went on to claim that any future Labour government would have to negotiate their budget with the SNP. This has drawn an angry response from Labour leader Ed Miliband who called these statements a combination of ‘bluff and bluster’. However this has not stopped the Conservatives and the Tory oriented press jumping on these comments.

The Conservatives have released a video showing Ed Miliband dancing as Alex Salmond plays a penny whistle. The Tories clearly believe this is a productive line of campaigning for them to take with a previous poster showing Ed Miliband tucked into Alex Salmond’s pocket. The comments from Salmond also featured prominently in much of the press with many traditional Conservative supporting newspapers reporting them and using them as an explicit warning.

With many people in England fearful about the influence the SNP may have after the next election and the personal disdain that is felt towards Alex Salmond, pressure was placed on Miliband to rule out a coalition with the SNP. This promise though has not stopped the story and so Miliband had little choice but to hit back hard over these comments. Being seen to be in cohorts with the SNP is an electoral millstone and Miliband must distance himself from Salmond and insist he will not work with the SNP.

However although they both protest, Salmond and Miliband are likely to need each other after the next election. Without Labour, the SNP have nowhere else to go. They have already ruled out a deal with the Conservatives and Scottish voters would look very unfavourably on any SNP party which took down a Labour government and let in a Conservative government.

Alex Salmond may have overplayed his hand and forced Labour into a corner where they have to come out swinging. Labour can seriously weaken Salmond’s position by holding onto their Scottish MPs but to do so they will have to adopt a more aggressive approach to the SNP. Miliband must show that he is the one calling the shots and not Salmond. This will not be easy against the old wily political campaigner though.

 

Our leaders still have a lot to give even when they step down from their roles!

Party politics is a cut throat business. An incumbent Prime Minister cannot now expect to survive a bad election result and remain as leader of their party. This forces former Prime Ministers onto the back benches only for them to leave the political stage as soon as possible to pursue alternative careers away from Westminster.

Recently David Cameron has stated his aim to remain in the House of Commons after he stops being leader of the Conservatives and Prime Minister. In modern times this would much make him a rare exception but one who could benefit his own party and also the British parliament. A former Prime Minister or leader of his party would have considerably experience, insight and expertise that should only add to our Parliament.

The only former Prime Minister sitting in the Commons at the moment is Gordon Brown. For much of the last five years he has been conspicuous by his absence and we have rarely seen him on the national stage. We saw from his late intervention in the Scottish independence referendum debate that he still has a lot to give, and his absence from the Commons appears to have been a missed opportunity. Brown will stand down at this election and there is a perception that much of his final five years in conventional politics have been wasted.

It is hard for any Prime Minister to take a step back once they have been removed from their position. Going from being the leader to being one of the troops again is understandably difficult. Add to this the opportunity to go and fulfill other dreams and interests, and the perception from your own party that your continuing presence is a liability to them, the decision to step down is often an easy one. However, if more could be done to encourage them to stay in the Commons, this could benefit party, parliament and the country.

As elder statesmen, former Prime Minister’s hold rare positions.  They have witnessed, experienced and been part of much and that means they still have much to give. David Cameron’s intentions are to be welcomed and we can but hope that in the future he will be one of many former Prime Ministers that opt to stay in Parliament and continue to contribute to public life in this way.

 

Yes we can! Should Labour be doing more to reach aspirational voters?

Labour has been criticised during this parliamentary term for running what has been seen as a core vote strategy. Within the Party there are mixed views about how best to campaign in and win the forthcoming election. A significant proportion of the party believe Labour is at its best when it offers aspirational voters a chance to see and reach for a better future. However, the more cautious wing believe that the current fragile economic situation does not lend itself to this sort of campaign and that Labour should concentrate on its core vote. This debate has spilled from the party into the media.

The Labour leadership refute claims they have adopted a core vote (35%) strategy based on securing traditional Labour supporters allied with defectors from the Liberal Democrats. They argue they have offered a wide ranging agenda which has been both ambitious and radical. However an analysis of their policies and focus supports the core vote argument.

This is a policy which may prove to be successful for the Labour Party. The electoral system and boundaries still favour the party and if they could reach 35% of the electorate then this would probably be enough to see Ed Miliband into Downing Street. Excluding the more aspirational, middle England voter is a risk though and may back-fire.

Recent history would suggest that Labour has been at its best when it has reached beyond its core base. New Labour were unashamedly aspirational in their approach and attracted many new supporters as a result. The language and rhetoric of “things can only get better” was later echoed by Obama in the US with his “yes we can” campaign.  It made the aspirational feel more comfortable with the party, which was rewarded with three election victories.

The lesson for the current Labour leadership is clear. Move away from the core message and reach out to voters who may not have always voted for the party.  To move beyond being potentially a one term electoral success and a natural party of government Labour must be seen to be on the side of aspirational voters. The current antipathy towards this group, seems at best to be short-sighted, and could ultimately see the party remain in opposition for the foreseeable future.  Labour and Miliband now have a decision to make, one which could have a significant impact on the future of the Labour Party.

Is talk of a grand coalition farfetched?

Talk of coalition (albeit out of the public limelight) is currently very much in fashion at Westminster. Polls pointing towards a hung parliament have led to commentators and pundits speculating about coalitions (formal and informal) and which parties could work together. Of the many potential “marriages” that have been discussed, one has tended to be neglected; a coalition between Labour and the Conservatives.

This possibility was raised and discussed by Lord Baker of Dorking in an interview for the Independent on Saturday. The Conservative peer called for a grand coalition between the major two parties if the SNP held the balance of power in the event of a hung parliament. His comments have been criticised by the Labour Party who have accused the peer of having ulterior motives. However he is not the first political figure to mention this as a possibility, with Labour MP Gisela Stewart also floating it.

A grand coalition between these two parties has happened before, but only in wartime. In peacetime Britain, this has never really been contemplated before. Any coalition between these two parties would hold a comfortable working majority and would not have to worry about getting any legislation through Parliament. A deal between the two parties would also rule out any negotiation, and possible concessions, with other parties, notable the SNP.

Coalitions between major opposing parties have happened and succeeded in other European countries most famously in Germany. However, because of our voting system, the concept of coalition is something we are only just getting used to in this country.  There was considerable drama and excitement about the recent agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Could the public cope with a deal between these particular parties?

Logic says that such a deal is far-fetched. Lord Baker would of course have known this when he made the comments and was perhaps being mildly mischievous.  Labour will not be helped in Scotland by such talk, and arguably the greatest beneficiaries of such talk is the Tories. Despite both being unionist parties, fundamental political differences between the two parties are substantial and it is hard to see how they could agree on a working platform from which to govern.

These comments did cause some excitement and theoretically a deal is possible, but the honest answer is that it simply won’t happen. There could be many coalitions and alliances after the General Election, but this won’t be one of them.

Should Labour rule out a deal with the SNP?

The current polls still provide us with no clear indication about who will form the next government or indeed whether any single party will have an overall majority. The one thing that does seem clear though is that the SNP are on course to make major gains, notably at the expense of the Labour Party. With Labour seemingly unlikely to win enough seats for an overall majority, the potential of a deal between the two parties has been mooted.

If a formal agreement was to happen, it would prove highly controversial. Only a few months ago the SNP and Labour were on opposing signs of an emotional referendum campaign. By helping the “No” campaign Labour inflicted some deep wounds to the SNP’s cause, wounds that will not easily be forgotten. The SNP has accepted the result of the referendum but their long term aim still remains an independent Scotland and it therefore seem incongruous that an independence party can form part of a United Kingdom government. For many in the Labour Party a deal with the SNP is unpalatable, hence the pressure on Miliband to rule it out.

Despite these differences both parties seem unwilling to publicly rule out the possibility of a deal. Nicola Sturgeon has made it clear she would support a Labour government (albeit on an issue by issue basis) and would be happy to talk to Miliband. Miliband has also refused to rule out a deal, perhaps realising that this is his best opportunity to gain power.

With the polls so close,  Labour are not going to want to show their hand too early and are keen to leave some “wriggle room” and not  to rule out any possibilities at this stage. Any deal is likely to anger traditional Labour supporters and would not be without long term ramifications. However if the choice for the Labour leadership was going back into opposition and seeing Cameron return to 10 Downing Street or doing a deal with the SNP, there is only one option they are likely to push for.

For many unionists seeing the SNP with “the balance of power” in Westminster is perhaps the ultimate nightmare. However with the SNP rise showing no sign of ending, and an overall majority seemingly unlikely it is a possibility we may all have to entertain. Alex Salmond as Deputy Prime Minister, anyone?

Forget 2015, its 2020 UKIP are really planning for!

Are UKIP here to stay and do they have a long term strategy?  Both are questions which have been asked about UKIP since their emergence on the political scene. UKIP’s recent fall in the polls has given weight to the argument they have reached their high water-mark and are on their way down. This however ignores the way our political system works.

For a long time in many Northern heartlands, Labour has faced no real opposition. The perception of the Tories as a party for the rich means they have struggled, and continue to struggle, in the North. The Liberal Democrats have been slightly more successful, but are likely to be hurt by their period in government and could effectively be wiped out in 2015. This leaves an opening for UKIP to exploit. Although unlikely to win many seats this time around, UKIP are likely to finish second in many of the large cities in the North, making them the only real opposition to Labour. This provides a platform to build on for future elections and enables them to benefit from any future disillusionment with a Labour government.

UKIP’s rise in the North is likely to be helped by a Labour led administration after the next election. Labour are committed to harsh economic cuts which are likely to anger many of their more traditional voters. Labour is not offering an EU referendum and with tensions running high, this gives UKIP another dividing line with Labour and enables them to continue their focus on immigration and the EU. The scenario of more cuts and continued high immigration would place UKIP in a position where they could benefit from the disgruntlement felt by many Labour traditionalists and pick up a number of seats in 2020.

Any prediction of UKIP’s demise is surely premature. They were never likely to maintain the high poll ratings they received over the course of last year, but that does not mean they cannot be successful. The nuances of our electoral system mean a political party is rewarded for having concentrated support in specific areas. If they are able to establish themselves as the main opposition to Labour in the North, this is the position UKIP will find itself in after 2015. They would then be in prime position to reap the rewards in the 2020 General Election.