A crucial opportunity

We’ve a very important job to do on Thursday.

Vote.

Every Westminster constituency is up for grabs. 650 of them. For many of us it’s time to choose our local councillors too. Both elections are important, but the opinion poll story suggests our votes in the General Election are particularly crucial.

As I’ve argued, there are many parallels with the election of 1992.

But in some ways, the parallels with February 1974 are more important.

In that election, a surge in support for smaller parties produced a hung parliament (or ‘balanced’ as the Lib Dems like to call it) which left the Conservatives too weak to govern. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, leading a minority Labour government. In need of strength, he called a fresh election in October 1974, securing an overall majority of just three seats.

Apparently the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, believes whoever wins the election ahead “will be out of power for a whole generation.” Perhaps he was thinking of 1974. Our economy then was in deep trouble. The years ahead brought great strife and many strikes. It took Labour 18 years to return to government following its defeat in 1979.

We are immersed in a fiscal nightmare; last year the government spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. Dealing with the deficit will be very painful. We may be out of recession for now, but the years ahead will be harder, not easier. Pity the Prime Minister calling an election in 2015.

But it is not 2015. It is 2010 and we’ve a very important job to do. We must think of the five years ahead, not the years after that. We must put our country first as we cast our ballot.

In 2005, 61.3% of the electorate turned out to vote. In 1992, the last time we knew it would be close, the turnout was 77.7%. I suspect we’ll see a similarly high turnout this time.

I will be voting in Poplar & Limehouse. It’s a fascinating contest; a three-way marginal where Respect’s George Galloway has entered the fray to unsettle Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick. It presents the Conservatives’ Tim Archer with a golden opportunity to win a challenging seat; a diverse, deprived, inner-city constituency.

George Galloway

George Galloway campaigning for Respect outside my home.

The BBC’s take on my constituency is here. Few seats will be watched with such interest, but every seat is important. Even safe seats are decided by those who actually turn up. They are only ‘safe’ because the voters make them safe. In 1997, the ‘Portillo moment’ showed that no seat is truly safe.

Voting is a great privilege and a great responsibility.

As a Christian, it’s interesting to note how many of my brothers and sisters feel it’s not their place to vote. Some of them don’t want to compromise their beliefs, by voting for the lesser of two evils. Others note that voting is not sanctioned in the Bible and that Jesus did not engage in the government of his day.

However, God created us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and to rule “over every living creature” (Genesis 1v28). Later St Paul writes that “there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13v1), “it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (v5) and “the authorities are God’s servants” (v6).

It reasonable inference that Christians might play a role in government or in electing it. It is even more important for us to pray. Each of us is but one man or woman and we have just one vote. But our prayers call upon a supreme authority for whom all things are possible.

While I have my doubts about the extent of the state, I do believe it has a role to play in regulating society and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. This is a good mission. But it can be undertaken well or badly and I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure our government acts well.

The debate about Christian engagement will go on. There is a similar argument in Islam, where some believe voting is “Shirk” (forbidden and unforgivable). But Muslim political engagement here in the UK is very strong, probably stronger than amongst Christians.

It is probably explained partly by a feeling of oppression as a minority in a secular christian country (small ‘c’ deliberate) and partly by an optimism that change is possible. Whereas the rest of us, Christian and secular alike, have come to feel that our votes count for very little.

Perhaps that’s true, but they still count for something. If they didn’t politicians wouldn’t be fighting so hard for them.

Christians may find it useful to check out the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement or the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Together they established Christians in Politics, a broader resource.

Vote for Policies is an independent website which merits 10 minutes’ investment. With so much focus on the personalities and the impression given by the parties, which party might we choose if it were entirely down to the policies? Vote for Policies might help.

If you want to examine the policy issues from first principles, check out the party manifestos (listed alphabetically, not by preference!)

Alliance Party (NI)

British National Party

Christian Peoples Alliance

Conservatives

Conservatives & Unionists

Democratic Unionist Party

English Democrats

Green Party

Jury Team

Labour

Liberal Democrats

Official Monster Raving Loony Party

Plaid Cymru

Respect

Scottish National Party

Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sinn Fein

UK Independence Party

A reprieve for cider drinkers

After the Budget, I wondered: who do cider drinkers vote for? Along with some other measures, the proposed big tax rise on cider has been shelved.

The general election is on 6th May and Parliament will be dissolved in a few days. So soon after the budget, the Government has had to cut deals to pass legislation (including the finance bill) and the higher cider tax is one of the victims. The winners, of course, are the cider drinkers and manufacturers of the West Country (and elsewhere!)

The Government has a healthy working majority in Parliament. But it cannot do all it pleases. It is not all-powerful. In this case its ambitions were thwarted by MPs fighting for their constituents (particularly for cider makers, not just the drinkers). These MPs may have been acting in concert with others fighting for different causes.

Sometimes – working together – the ‘powerless’ carry enough strength to deliver. Perhaps the Great Ignored could collaborate to influence the election and the next Government.

Cider drinkers probably won’t swing the election, and the Government knows this. If Labour stays in office after 6th May, the tax rise will be reinstated.

But it doesn’t concern me; just stay away from my Guinness!

Reliving 1992

It’s getting close. The election is soon, and the gap between the two main parties is narrow. Various opinion polls give the Conservatives a slim majority over Labour. In some cases it’s just two percentage points. For the Conservatives, a two point lead is not enough for an overall majority. It may not even win them more seats than Labour.

Labour could be in a position to form a minority/coalition government despite polling fewer votes than the Conservatives. This is because Labour dominates in urban constituencies with smaller electorates. So the seats it wins are often secured with fewer votes. It’s a real possibility the Conservatives could win more votes but fewer seats in the forthcoming election. Indeed, in 2005, in England, that’s just what happened.

As an aside, the Liberal Democrats are wrestling with the conundrum of a hung parliament in which Labour secures more seats and the Conservatives, more votes. They say the party with the strongest mandate has the right to govern. But Nick Clegg won’t say whether that means the party with most seats or the most votes. It leaves him some wriggle room.

Election day, 1992

So the Conservatives are ahead in the opinion polls, but each party has all to play for. It reminds me of 1992 and there are a number of similar features.

  • In 1992, the Conservatives had been in office for 13 years. Margaret Thatcher, an inspirational but controversial figure had led her party to three comfortable majorities before losing favour with the country and her own party. She stood aside mid-term to be replaced by her Chancellor, John Major.
  • Now in 2010, Labour has been in office for 13 years. Tony Blair, an inspirational but controversial figure led his party to three comfortable majorities before losing favour with the country and his own party. He stood aside mid-term to be replaced by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown.
  • In 1992, Labour has been 13 years in opposition. In the early years it  swung sharply to the left and suffered for it in successive elections. But the latest leader, Neil Kinnock, had worked hard to change the party and its brand. By 1992, it had been mainly ahead in the opinion polls for several years.
  • Now in 2010, the Conservatives have been 13 years in opposition. In the early years they swung sharply to the right and suffered for it in successive elections. But the latest leader, David Cameron, has worked hard to change the party and its brand. Now it has been mainly ahead in the opinion polls for several years.
  • In 1992, the Conservative had won three general elections. When they first came to power, they succeeded a highly unpopular and mistrusted Labour government. Margaret Thatcher was re-elected twice, remaining undefeated in the country. She called each of her elections after four years. Her successor waited until the last practical moment: five years.
  • Now in 2010, Labour has won three general elections. When it first came to power, it succeeded a highly unpopular and mistrusted Conservative government. Tony Blair was re-elected twice, remaining undefeated in the country. He called each of his elections after four years. His successor waited until the last practical moment: five years.
  • In 1992, the economy was in recovery from a nasty recession, but Black Wednesday lay ahead.
  • Now in 2010, the economy is in recovery from an even nastier recession, but I have no doubt further challenges lie ahead.

Of course, there are some differences too. For example:

  • In 1992, the incumbent Prime Minister was still relatively new to the voters. He’d served as Foreign Secretary for four months, Chancellor for 13 months and Prime Minister for 18 months before election day.
  • Now in 2010, the incumbent has served 18 years at the highest levels of opposition or government. Mr Brown is well-known.
  • In 1992, interest rates were 10% (on election day). They had fallen steadily from a peak of 15% in 1989.
  • Now in 2010, interest rates are just 0.5%. That is as low as they have ever been.

But there is another critical similarity:

  • In 1992, the incumbent party won a late surge in support.
  • Now in 2010, that is happening again.

In 1992, the incumbent party won.

Politics was not well-served by the re-election of the Conservatives in 1992. They were tolerated, not loved, but the voters couldn’t face the prospect of Labour returning to power. Five years on and the governing party was about as popular as a rat at a hen do.

It has taken many years and a substantial change in tone and focus for voters to come to terms with the Conservatives again. But that last term in office did them great harm. Labour is tolerated, not loved, but the voters are very nervous about the Conservatives returning to power.

Now in 2010?

Against expectations, Labour could remain in government until 2015. If that happens, I predict a landslide the other way, just like 1997. 18 years in government is a very long time. By 2015, it will be a very tired government.

In any case, the next five years are going to be very difficult. The next government will have some very tough economic decisions to take. It cannot risk the politics of popularity. It must govern in the national interest.

For the next government, Labour or Conservative, the election of 2014/15 is going to be very tough indeed.

Who do cider drinkers vote for?

I was impressed by Alistair Darling’s budget on Wednesday. Politically, it was hard to fault. Economically, he played it safe and didn’t upset the markets.

Evidently the Budget deficit needs to be tackled. Otherwise the credit ratings agencies will become tetchy and credit will be harder to come by. The big question is: how soon should the deficit be reduced? Are savage cuts the way forward? Or do we simply need to make a start? The main parties are divided on the issue and so are economists. But the political gap has closed a bit. Nick Clegg is no longer calling for savage cuts and the Conservatives’ tone was much more hawkish several months ago.

The government plans to halve the deficit in four years, despite European Commission encouragement to act quicker. Their argument is that to cut quicker would harm the economy still further.

There were no great economic revelations in the Budget. The big decisions, the painful ones especially, will come later. That political judgement was straightforward. But aside from that, Mr Darling played a dextrous hand.

Among his cards, the decision to grant a two year stamp duty holiday to first-time buyers of homes up to £250,000 (neglecting a nod of courtesy to the opposite benches for the idea). It’s paid for by an increase in stamp duty on £1m homes. Not for two years, but permanently. I can’t imagine this will cost Labour too many votes.

And this one’s inspirational: a tiny increase on a pint of beer (2%) alongside a much larger increase in cider (10% above inflation). Beer drinkers will feel they got off lightly. Who do beer drinkers vote for? Probably any and every party (though traditionally Labour!) Meanwhile, who do cider drinkers vote for? Here’s a clue:

Cider duty up - costly for Labour?

Cider duty up - costly for Labour?

My Confession

I have a confession. Once upon a time, I underpaid my service charge for almost two years. I don’t remember the precise details, but I think I was paying about £27 per month when I should have been paying £100 per month. This lasted about 20 months.

I had been paying what I was asked to pay and I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Sound familiar?

When my landlord informed me that I needed to start paying my latest bill, along with arrears of £1,500, I was very angry. Why? Because they had my direct debit instruction and I expected them to take care of my payments.

I shouldn’t have left the matter entirely to my landlord, no more than many MPs should have left the decisions on their expenses entirely to the fees office.

For me there are some awkward questions to answer:

  • Q. Did I know how much my service charge was?
    A. Yes, I knew it was about £1,200.
  • Q. Did I know how much I was paying my landlord?
    A. Yes, I knew it was about £27 per month.
  • Q. (in the style of Jeremy Paxman) Did it never occur to me that I was systematically paying less than a third of what I owed?
    A. No, it didn’t. Honestly, Mr Paxman, it really never occurred to me until almost two years had passed.

I was mighty angry when I realised I’d been allowed to fall so far behind. Not with myself. I was angry with the landlord. My error should have been spotted earlier. Or, as I still maintain, they should have adjusted my direct debit to match their bill.

I was a little angry with myself, but only just.

I expect a lot of MPs are feeling a similar frustration. Some of them were knowingly milking the system for all it was worth, but others were taking only what they believed they were honestly entitled to. They did not expect the fees office to pay more than this.

The fees office has tended to govern expenses by the letter of the rules. There are some cases where claims have been refused for breaching the spirit of the rules, but they are few and far between.

Personally, I believe I would ruthlessly obey the letter of the rules. Any failure on this would be a genuine oversight. But what right do I have to judge MPs for their adherence or otherwise to the spirit of the rules? The tone of my article on The Thieves of Westminster clearly does.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
(Luke 6v41)

So what is my ‘plank’? Under the expenses system, I would no doubt have been tempted by certain financial scenarios.

I have some sympathy for Francis Maude’s indulgence. After a series of expenses negotiations, he eventually bought a second second home in London because he could not claim any allowance on either his first second home nearby (which he owned outright), or his main home in Horsham (which he still had a mortgage on).

He has been criticised for this behaviour and, along with other members of the Shadow Cabinet, ordered by David Cameron to stop claiming expenses on the mortgage interest.  In the current climate, that is probably the right decision, but I fear that in Mr Maude’s position, I too may have done the same.

This week I’ve been wondering about the case for an immediate election. I hadn’t imagined it would be something Mr Brown would favour, but perhaps the call to do so would become impossible to ignore. However, I have changed my mind. I do not believe an election in the near future would be a good idea.

The public do need to have their say on every apple in the Commons, rotten or otherwise. But the dust needs to settle, and perhaps the MPs deserve a real opportunity to explain themselves to their electorates.

Some MPs do deserve to be turfed out, but not all of them, or even most of them. The trouble is, there is now a widespread perception that “they’re all at it”. I don’t believe that’s true. I do think that these revelations have been valuable, but we need to allow some time to pass before we pass judgement on the defendants. We need to understand more clearly who deserves our wrath and who doesn’t.

So, as I recently suggested, the election is still almost a year away. I believe we need the time between now and then to grasp some perspective on what we’ve learned.

When is E-Day?

Much has been said about when the general election might be. Well-informed tongues began wagging ahead of the Labour conference in 2007, Gordon Brown’s first as Prime Minister. Should he call a snap election to consolidate his authority? As leader of the underdogs, David Cameron’s challenge was to frighten the PM and force a rethink. He was helped by some clever politicking by his Shadow Chancellor. In the end, there was no election and it became clear Mr Brown would aim to see out the mandate won by Tony Blair in 2005.

Today is four years on. Each of the previous two elections were held after four years (or thereabouts). Both of Margaret Thatcher’s re-elections were held after four years, but John Major held off until the five year mark on both occasions.

When might Mr Brown see fit to go to the country? My view is that the election will take place on 6th May 2010, one year tomorrow. The argument for this precise date is put succinctly and effectively by James Forsyth in the Spectator last week. Basically, we know the local elections will be held that day and he doesn’t think it will happen before then or afterwards.

6th May 2010 is (a day) more than five years. It surprised me to learn recently that the general election could take place more than five years after the previous one. But apparently so; it happened most recently in 1997. Parliament is elected for a five year term, after which the timetable for the next general election is set in motion automatically.

In practice, the Prime Minister normally requests a dissolution from the Monarch before this point, but it’s not necessary. An election next year could happen as late as 3rd June, or two weeks later if the Queen dies after she’s summoned a new parliament. But as James Forsyth explains, 6th May would seem to be the most likely date. 

Westminster
The Mother of Parliaments

Mr Brown has faced much flak for his failure to go to the country early to secure a personal mandate. He was criticised, partly because probably he would have won; but the philosophical reason is arguably more important. Had he sought the consent of the British people to govern, he could more easily point his critics to this and move on.

He also lacks a mandate from his party. His elevation to the premiership was something of an appointment by inevitability. Labour MPs knew Mr Brown would be their next  leader, so the vast majority of them pledged their support. Two challengers emerged, Michael Meacher and John McDonnell, but neither could secure enough support (45 MPs) to force Mr Brown to face a wider vote.

So Mr Brown has neither a mandate from his party nor from the British people. His only real democratic authority comes from his constituency in Scotland. This reality harms him when he faces other challenges to his authority. So if he is replaced any time soon, would his successor call a snap election? I don’t think so.

All parties are ready for an election at any time. At least they should be. Even the party of government should be ready for when its leader decides it’s time to go to the country. Only the Prime Minister knows when he will do that, but his chief lieutenants must have a campaign plan ready at all times.

So, along with the others, Mr Cameron’s party is ready, Mr Clegg’s party is ready, and Mr Brown’s party is ready. But if Mr Brown is deposed, his party would no longer be ready to fight.

A new commander would need time to marshal his forces. He (or she) would need to draw up his own battle plan. A personal leadership vision would not be enough. A manifesto for government and an effective campaign to sell this message to the voters would take time to draw up. And in the midst of a crisis, the voters may not forgive any prime minister who decided to focus on electioneering instead of governing. The voters know the election will come soon enough. I believe they would rather wait for it, particularly if a key leader was unknown to them.

For Gordon Brown, it was different. He had ten years to prepare for the premiership, and the voters knew who he was. So he could have called a snap election. His replacement would be a fool to do so, particularly if the opinion polls remain stable.

The county council and European elections are on 4th June. This will be a key test. A good day for Labour will possibly settle the leadership question for now. But a bad day will increase the pressure on the Prime Minister. If he steps down, it will happen in June. A new leader would not be in place until, probably, August. At the earliest, a snap election could take place in September. But I suggest this will not happen.

I believe that, at the best of times, a new leader would want to wait at least three months before calling the election; perhaps even six months in the current economic climate. By that logic, an election would not take place before April. In that case, he might as well wait until 6th May, if only for the prospect of better weather. I believe the governing party benefits from a sunny day and Labour, in particular, benefits from a decent turnout.

But what is the likelihood of Mr Brown being turfed out now? I think it is slim. There is plenty of speculation about the leadership, but the next leader of the party will not want to begin a term in opposition after a crushing electoral defeat. Better to allow Mr Brown to take the hit. The circumstances of a stable overall majority for Labour are difficult to envisage; any victory is likely to be akin to John Major’s 21-seat majority of 1992 which had dwindled to precisely zero by 1997.

Who would want to take the helm during this storm? A caretaker, just for now, is a possibility. After all, if the skipper has lost command of his vessel, his crew must either step up or face doom. But if a caretaker is needed, Gordon Brown might as well stay on. For this purpose, he’s probably as good as anyone. The pretenders will recognise this soon. Expect them to close ranks almost immediately; certainly before the elections on 4th June. Watch the rats abandon ship in the year ahead (to a range of parties and some as independents), but Captain Brown will remain on the bridge.

A week is a long time in politics.
(Harold Wilson)

One might suppose that a year is somewhat longer. We will have to see that year out to understand what history reveals. But my prediction is this: the three main party leaders will all fight the next general election and the campaign will culminate on 6th May next year. One year tomorrow.