As with most things in life, perception and image are often as powerful as fact and as such are very important to politicians and political parties. Once a particular label is given to a party or an individual it can often be hard to escape this tag. For generations, the Conservatives have been labelled as the party of the rich and that tag follows the current Tory party and leadership who are seen as being on the side of the rich and not understanding the concerns of the ordinary man.
This image is not been helped by the demographic of their current leadership. Labour and other opponents are quick to point out the privileged backgrounds of Cameron and Osborne in particular and how their policies favour their rich peers. Whilst unfair to judge Cameron and Osborne on their background; it is fair to judge them on their policies.
Cutting the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p was always going to be controversial. When trying to claim as Osborne famously did that ‘we are all in this together’ this sort of move sends out a contrary signal. Ignoring any economic logic behind the move, it appears politically foolish. The recent HSBC scandal which has been linked to party funding, also fuels the impression that the party are not as tough on the super-rich as they could be.
The Tory’s annual Black and White Ball has long been used as a fundraising event for the party. Tickets for this event are expensive with attendees given the opportunity to bid to spend time with members of the Cabinet in various leisure pursuits. Whilst of itself there is no issue with a ball, the way this particular ball is conducted strengthens the perception of privilege and doesn’t aid the Conservatives.
The Conservative Party need to be seen as a party for everyone and have made some positive steps in this regard. There have been policies and reforms in government targeting the less privileged such as increasing the personal tax allowance. However with the help of their critics the focus falls too often of those policies seen to aid the rich and privileged. While this continues to be the case, many “ordinary” voters will remain unconvinced about the party and consequently unwilling to vote for them. In a close election this could be crucial.
Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind are linked by two things. Both have held one of the highest offices in British politics; that of Foreign Secretary; and both are currently suspended from their parliamentary parties. This comes after they appeared to be caught offering their services to a private company for cash after being trapped in a sting set up by the Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches. Presently these remain only allegations and both men have referred themselves to the Parliament’s standards watchdog and have claimed they have done nothing wrong. However the allegations are very serious and that is why both parliamentary parties have been so quick to act.
Both Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind are long standing and well known politicians. They are both big beasts within Parliament and have occupied other prominent roles in their careers. It is not unusual for politicians to be caught out in journalist stings, but it is unusual for it to be two politicians of this calibre and seemingly high standing. This makes the story even more explosive and the implications for politics in general even more serious.
There is already a strong anti-politics mood in the country. Trust in politicians has not recovered from the expenses scandal and this story is only going to add fuel to the fire. It heightens the perception that politicians are only in their jobs for the money and do not care about their constituents. It damages the image and reputation of all at Westminster who become tarred with the same brush.
The winners in this story could be the smaller parties such as UKIP and the Greens. If voters remain angry with mainstream politics and politicians they are likely to look for an alternative. Although perhaps most likely to manifest itself in not voting at all, this anger provides the smaller parties space to highlight the need for change and to distance themselves from the present incumbents in Parliament.
These are two of our more respected politicians and both have given much to this country. However, if these allegations are proven to be true, than their previous records of service will be forgotten and they will simply be remembered as crooks and money grabbers. This would be a sad personal ending for them and again drags the name of politicians through the gutter taking their reputation ever lower.
A leaked document has shown that Rochester and Strood is no longer considered a target seat for the Conservatives. On the face of it, there is nothing too shocking about this. This is just one seat out of 650 seats and the Conservatives cannot be expected to win every seat. However, this is a seat with special significance. This seat was won by Mark Reckless in a by election in November after his defection from the Conservatives to UKIP, thus making it different to most other seats.
The by-election campaign fought earlier this year had a very personal nature. Tories angered at the Reckless defection sought to publicly attack and undermine him in a very negative campaign. David Cameron famously promised ‘to throw the kitchen sink at it’ and the Tories were confident of holding onto the seat in the by-election. However they failed and Reckless won pretty comfortably. After this loss, the Tories then claimed they would do all they could to win the seat in May and believed they could regain it in the General Election. It now appears the Tory Party may be having a re-think.
There are 101 constituencies on this leaked list of “non-target” seats. Normally these are either seats which are considered traditionally as a safe hold for the Conservatives or a safe hold for one of their opponents, places where the Tories will not be putting in a lot of time, effort or resources. Rochester and Strood was previously seen as a relatively safe Conservative seat before it went to UKIP, not a traditional no-win seat and therefore it is puzzling as to why it appears on the list.
The reaction from Tory HQ to this list coming into the public domain has been surprisingly calm. They claim the conclusions that are being drawn are wide of the mark. However if the commentators and pundits are right then it does pose some interesting questions. Rochester and Strood is the type of seat the Tories would need to win if they want to gain an outright majority. If they have given up on this seat, then does this signal that they have given up on a majority? Not for the first time the public pronouncement of a political party may be very different from what it is truly thinking in private, in this case suggesting ambitions are somewhat lower than they might like to admit.
With the election only a few months away there is now a greater focus on parliament and in particular the weekly edition of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). This is the flagship event of the week in parliament and is poured over and dissected by the media. This greater focus and scrutiny has led to renewed criticism in recent months though, with many aspects of PMQs being criticized.
The criticisms, although wide ranging, have focused on specific aspects. The chamber is very loud and ill-disciplined with MPs struggling to be heard, and the Speaker regularly having to intervene to bring order. The questions between Miliband and Cameron normally descend into public insults with both being heckled loudly whenever they attempt to speak. The majority of questions are pre-planted and are designed either to attack the Prime Minister or to give him the chance to show off his record. PMQs is no longer the place where important constituency matters can be raised, but is now simply an occasion for parties to try and score political points and trot out their pre-election slogans.
We all enjoy the passion and theatre of the Commons, but to remain relevant there does need to be a level of control. Our parliament should be robust and passionate but this passion should be directed at the issues. This is an opportunity where the Prime Minister is supposed to be being held to account; an opportunity currently missed.
PMQs is shown all over the world and for a lot of people who live outside the UK it is the only glimpse of the British Parliament that they see. The raucous scenes of PMQs are therefore often the only example of what our Parliament is like and given the childish and petty behaviour of many MPs at PMQs this is not something which should sit well with any of us who care about our parliament.
PMQs is not working in its current format. It is failing to achieve what it was intended to do and major reform is needed if it is to again be worthwhile. As the face of parliament PMQs does not present a good image and does little for democracy. The behaviour of the MPs is childish, the questions are pre-planned, the answers are scripted and most of the time you can barely hear yourself think. Our parliament and our democracy must be better than this.
In 1997 Michael Portillo lost his seemingly safe of Enfield Southgate to Labour. Labour were widely expected to win the 1997 General Election but no one believed they would be competitive in seats such as Portillo’s. The moment has gone down in political folklore for two reasons. Firstly, because of its subsequent impact as Portillo was widely expected to become the Conservative leader after the election and secondly, because of how big a political scalp Portillo was. If current polling is to be believed deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg could be about to suffer the same fate.
In 2010, riding on the back of the televised debates Nick Clegg won over 50% of the vote and had a majority of 15,000. Since he has entered government Clegg’s popularity and that of the Liberal Democrats has fallen through the floor. Clegg’s seat of Sheffield Hallam has a high proportion of students who are angry with Clegg for breaking his promise on tuition fees and are eager to punish him. Even with the existing large majority his seat could be under threat.
Two recent polls have suggested that Clegg is currently behind and could lose his seat in 2015. One poll carried out by Survation and Unite has Clegg ten points behind and another poll carried out by Lord Ashcroft has Clegg three points behind. The usual pinch of salt must be taken with polls, but it does appear Clegg is in for a real battle.
Labour believe their best chance of forming a coalition with the Lib Dems is if Clegg is removed and a new leader is elected and therefore are quite open about how they are targeting the Sheffield Hallam seat. Clegg however is believed to favour a deal with the Tories rather than with Labour but without a seat he would be relegated to the position of interested onlooker.
Clegg still has that large majority and could yet receive the backing of tactical Conservative voting to stop Labour. However there is a real chance he could lose his seat and no doubt much of the media will be eagerly awaiting another Portillo moment. It was always going to be unlikely Clegg could carry on as leader after this election, but a poor result could be the final nail in his coffin. This is certainly one result to look out for on election night.
The prospect of a post-election UKIP Conservative coalition is something which may have seemed quite enticing to many on the Eurosceptic wing on the Conservative Party. However this possibility has been quashed by Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps who has ruled out any pacts or deals with UKIP. With the polls still pointing towards a hung parliament, this appears a bold move.
The Conservative Party will claim that they are fighting for an overall majority but privately accept that their chances of achieving this appear slim. There does remain a possibility though that they could be the largest party in a hung parliament. In this case they would have the first opportunity to form a new government and would be left with two options; running a minority government or attempting to form another coalition.
With UKIP seemingly ruled out, the most likely coalition partner for the Conservatives would again be the Liberal Democrats. For this deal to succeed a number of hurdles would have to be overcome. Firstly the parliamentary numbers would need to work to provide a stable government. There would also have to be an appetite on both sides; policies they could agree on; and an improvement in current relations. Overcoming all these problems to secure the support of both parliamentary parties will not be easy.
The other option would be a minority administration. The rumours are this is the option many in the Conservative Party would prefer and are leaning towards. This would rely on keeping the party together, which may prove easier said than done and would require doing deals behind the scenes with other parties. A minority government would lack stability and leave the party open to the whims of others, running the risk of being overthrown at any stage.
The Conservatives have emerged from the current coalition bruised, but seemingly unscathed. Whilst perhaps not seeking to rush into another coalition, it will certainly be an option should the election deliver another hung parliament. There is little doubt that the Conservative Party are considering all their options, but with a coalition deal with UKIP ruled out and any deal with the SNP a non-starter their options appear limited. For that reason alone do not be shocked to see Cameron and Clegg reach another agreement. The marriage between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may not be over yet.
The latest election forecast for Sky News based on the latest polls in Scotland and the “poll of polls” has the Scottish National Party (SNP) on course to make major gains in the upcoming General Election. The current forecast predicts the SNP will win 53 out of the 59 available seats in Scotland. A result of this level would put them on course to be the third largest party in Westminster and may provide them with a significant role in a future government.
It has been a remarkable period for the SNP. After losing the independence referendum many expected the SNP to fall away. This has been far from the case with the SNP continuing to flourish. They have seen a rise in party membership, have experienced greater TV exposure and are steadily rising in the opinion polls. New leader Nicola Sturgeon appears to be a competent and popular politician and is attracting large audiences and handling the media well.
Outside of the party itself, a strong SNP performance will have the biggest impact on the Labour Party. Traditionally Scotland has been seen as safe ground for the Labour Party and in modern times they have returned a large number of MPs from the region. These latest polls indicate a big shift in Scotland and that the Labour Party can no longer take the support of the Scottish electorate for granted. This will make the chances of the Labour Party winning an outright majority at the next election considerably harder.
Polls are notoriously fickle and as polling day draws nearer many voters could return to the Labour Party in fear of a potential Conservative government. Even so the SNP still remain on course to win enough seats to become the third largest party in Westminster. With the likelihood of another hung parliament, this outcome will provide the SNP with a strong negotiating position. Sturgeon has already ruled out the possibility of doing a deal with the Tories, but there appears a lot of common ground with the Labour Party and a distinct possibility that a deal could be agreed between the two parties. Given the largely expected demise of the SNP following the loss of the independence referendum, this would represent quite a turnaround.
Recent polls have shown the Green Party is on the rise. They are regularly polling around 10% and have moved ahead of the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. They are popular with younger voters and have seen a large increase in membership. So what is behind this rise and can they maintain it?
The Greens can claim with some justification that they are the only anti-austerity mainstream party standing in the next election. The policy may not be economically sound but it remains attractive to a proportion of the electorate. With the Labour Party already signed up to a programme of cuts after the next election this has left room for the Green Party to exploit.
In a world where all publicity is good publicity, the greater exposure received by the Greens has undoubtedly helped them. This was largely created by David Cameron’s insistence that they were invited to the leader’s debates. This is a stance that has definitely helped the Green Party. The Greens have also successfully run a campaign challenging their exclusion from the debates which gained large support from the public and has led to new debate proposals from the broadcasters with the Green Party invited.
The Green Party is a natural home for many protest voters who previously may have voted for the Liberal Democrats and still remained unconvinced by Labour. As seen by the rise of UKIP there is a discontent with the main political parties and therefore significant numbers of voters are looking for alternatives.
The electoral system in this country remains very much against the smaller parties and makes it hard for them to breakthrough in a significant way. They currently only have one MP and may struggle to add to this at the General Election. With greater exposure comes greater scrutiny and this adds a new dynamic and more pressure to the party.
There is a good chance the Green Party will do well in the upcoming election, perhaps even polling ahead of the Lib Dems in fourth place. However, that is unlikely to translate into more Commons seats. The real impact of the Green Party could be that they take voters away from the Labour Party enabling the Conservatives to win more of the marginal seats. In what is already an unpredictable election, it makes calling the election result that much harder again.